Pandemic hurts progress being made to combat extremism in the Sahel

In recent months, a regional effort to combat violence from armed groups within the Sahel has deteriorated, causing instability with potentially far-reaching consequences. In June, French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, as his first trip outside of Europe since the beginning of the pandemic to discuss this evolving threat. President Macron, the most vocal of  European leaders about the need to address extremism in the Sahel, met with the G5 Sahel group, which includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. 

Earlier this year, the French President hosted the G5 leaders after 2019 saw the highest number of casualties in the region from armed conflict since 2012. The increasing violence worried leaders and caused concerns that the region might soon face an unwinnable battle against armed groups as violence continues to increase unless a more concentrated and cooperative regional approach was taken. The participants of the meeting in France were especially concerned with the spread of extremist violence to coastal regions of West Africa, where such violence is not common.

The goal of the June summit was to agree on a more effective strategy to prevent regional instability from spilling over further. A few weeks prior, French special forces killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in Mali. Following this military success, the summit resulted in the Coalition for the Sahel, which placed all troops under a single command and coordinated development efforts in the region. The participants were hopeful that they could start regaining ground in their battle despite the setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As the former colonial power, France has continually urged its other allies for stronger support for the crisis in the Sahel. After the new coalition was announced, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates agreed to contribute military and financial support. Unfortunately, France and the United States continue to disagree on how to address violence in the region. This has prevented the initiation of a more successful campaign by other global powers.

France has increased the presence of troops in the Sahel from 4,500 to 5,100 in recent months due to the rise in extremist violence. However, there has been little progress made due to French unilateralism in decision making which has served to alienate US officials. This acts as a double edged sword for France as French endeavors are often dependent on regional intelligence provided by the United States. The Trump Administration has repeatedly threatened to pull out American counterterrorism forces in the Sahel, which could result in a French military overextension and a further increase in violence due to a lack of opposing forces. 

There are also increasing concerns about human rights abuses committed by Sahel governments. Changes still have yet to be filed after the death of 43 people at the hands of Malian soldiers this summer. These abuses may lessen civilian cooperation with counter-extremism measures in the region.

It is unclear what the next steps will be, but there is no doubt that the stability of the Sahel region is very fragile at a time when Western countries are distracted by the pandemic and great power politics.

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