France, US tussle over Sahel force
Draft UN resolution sparks spat
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.
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.