France, US tus­sle over Sa­hel force

Draft UN res­o­lu­tion sparks spat

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

THE US and France are hurtling to­wards a po­ten­tial dust-up, as the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion weighs ve­to­ing a French Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion em­pow­er­ing an African counter-ter­ror­ism force, ac­cord­ing to US of­fi­cials and UN-based diplo­mats.

The dis­pute hinges on the ques­tion of who will help fund the force of 5 000 African sol­diers and po­lice in the Sa­hel, a semi-arid plain that stretches from Sene­gal to Su­dan, and whether French mil­i­tary plan­ners have de­vised a work­able strat­egy.

France spear­headed the ef­fort to as­sem­ble a five-na­tion African anti-ter­ror force – the G5 – but the coun­tries tak­ing part are look­ing to the US, its al­lies and the UN to share the bur­den of fund­ing and sup­port­ing the cross-bor­der oper­a­tions.

The ne­go­ti­a­tions have emerged as a test of will be­tween France’s newly elected pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, who trav­elled to Mali days af­ter be­ing sworn in to un­der­score France’s com­mit­ment to bat­tling Is­lamic ter­ror­ists, and US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who is look­ing to scale back US fund­ing for mul­ti­lat­eral oper­a­tions.

A breach over the Sa­hel force could place new strains on US re­la­tions with France and other gov­ern­ments just weeks af­ter Trump an­nounced plans to with­draw from the Paris cli­mate pact.

The US, backed by Bri­tain, sup­ports in prin­ci­ple the French and African com­mit­ment to take the fight to ter­ror­ists. But they have ob­jected to giv­ing the op­er­a­tion a UN seal of ap­proval, say­ing the troops from Burk­ina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mau­ri­ta­nia and Niger, al­ready have le­gal au­thor­ity to con­duct mis­sions.

“It is not legally nec­es­sary for the coun­cil to au­tho­rise this force,” ac­cord­ing to a US of­fi­cial, who said the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s con­cerns went be­yond the fi­nan­cial costs.

“The re­cent his­tory of us­ing Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions to ap­ply the UN im­pri­matur to hastily crafted man­dates with­out proper on-the­ground over­sight and ac­count­abil­ity is not glowing.”

A sec­ond US of­fi­cial said Amer­i­can diplo­mats in New York were still try­ing to per­suade the French to back down, but Paris ap­peared in­tent on “ram­ming it through and ig­nor­ing all of our ob­jec­tions”.

The of­fi­cial noted that the US was weigh­ing whether to use its veto power if the French did not amend their ini­tia­tive to ad­dress those con­cerns.

But France is bet­ting that the US will blink if it faces a counter-ter­ror­ism res­o­lu­tion with broad Se­cu­rity Coun­cil sup­port.

For the past four years, France has led in­ter­na­tional counter-ter­ror­ism ef­forts in the Sa­hel, seek­ing to fill a se­cu­rity vac­uum in the re­gion that fol­lowed the col­lapse of Muam­mar Gaddafi’s gov­ern­ment in Libya in 2011.

The US has gen­er­ally sup­ported that ef­fort, pro­vid­ing fi­nan­cial, po­lit­i­cal and in­tel­li­gence sup­port to the French counter-ter­ror­ism ef­fort in the re­gion. But Wash­ing­ton has long had reser­va­tions about the ca­pac­ity of the re­gion’s African ar­mies to pros­e­cute an ef­fec­tive war on ter­ror.

In 2012, France pro­posed as­sem­bling an army of 15 African coun­tries to con­front Mali’s ter­ror­ists, an idea that Su­san Rice, then the US am­bas­sador to the UN, dis­missed as “crap”.

For France, the ini­tia­tive of­fers a model for help­ing lo­cal forces take on ter­ror­ists, par­tic­u­larly at a time when the US and the UN are look­ing to African states to re­solve their own se­cu­rity prob­lems.

It is only log­i­cal, French diplo­mats have ar­gued, that the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, which has ap­proved hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in sup­port for a US African anti-ter­ror force in So­ma­lia, should also sup­port this African-backed mis­sion in Mali.

French of­fi­cials main­tain that their plan, which has been en­dorsed by the AU and UN sec­re­tary-gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res, en­joys wide­spread back­ing in the 15-na­tion coun­cil, from African states to China.

PIC­TURE: EPA

French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron leaves a mil­i­tary he­li­copter af­ter fly­ing over Gao dur­ing a visit last month to troops fight­ing as part of France’s counter-ter­ror­ism op­er­a­tion in north­ern Mali.

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