Afghanistan is over. Africa looms in the ‘war on terror.’

Afghanistan is over. Africa looms in the ‘war on terror.’

Alvaro Barrientos/Reuters/File

French President Emmanuel Macron pays tribute to French soldiers who died in a 2020 helicopter crash in Mali. He has promised that the military operation against Islamist militants in the Sahel will not be a "forever" war.

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September 1, 2021

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Now that Afghanistan is over, where will the “war on terror” take America next?

Actually, it is already there, in the semiarid Sahel region of northwest Africa. U.S. troops – alongside allies such as France – have been battling jihadi insurgents for years in Mali and neighboring countries.

Why We Wrote This

The war against jihadis in northwest Africa threatens to become another Afghanistan. What lessons can France and its allies learn from U.S. experience with the Taliban?

The Sahel is not Afghanistan, but there are similarities; 5,000 French soldiers are running counterterror operations while training local troops to fight on their own, and Europe is pouring in aid money to the region. But violence is on the rise, and government corruption and economic hardship is feeding disenchantment.

Like President Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron is unwilling to fight a “forever” war; he has ordered a drawdown of troops next year. But he has ruled out a rapid, wholesale, U.S.-style end to the Sahel mission. And he still believes that massive economic aid is key to winning the hearts-and-minds battle with the jihadis.

One lesson Mr. Macron has taken from Afghanistan puts him at odds with Washington, which seems open to negotiations with Sahel insurgents. That is a red line for Mr. Macron, and it will not have escaped his notice that it was negotiations with the Taliban that paved the way to their victory. His resolve will have hardened.

London

Afghanistan 2.0.

That’s the phrase haunting Western governments – and galvanizing jihadi insurgents – in the wake of America’s exit from Kabul. It refers to a region few Americans have heard of, but which threatens to become the next major focus in the battle against Al Qaeda, the Islamic State group, and other allied groups.

It’s the Sahel, a semiarid band of grassland stretching across northern Africa just below the Sahara. And after nearly 10 years of inconclusive fighting, the key outside military players – led by former colonial power France and including other European states and the U.S. – are actively reassessing their options.

Why We Wrote This

The war against jihadis in northwest Africa threatens to become another Afghanistan. What lessons can France and its allies learn from U.S. experience with the Taliban?

The parallels aren’t exact between Afghanistan and the affected Sahel countries – Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso. But the similarities are powerful, and so are the potential lessons.

In the Sahel, as in Afghanistan, Western governments have adopted a three-pronged strategy; 5,000 French troops run counterterror operations, with logistic, intelligence, and Special Forces backup from the United States; local armies undergo training and equipment upgrades; and Europe pours in large-scale financial and development aid.

There are other, sobering parallels. The number of attacks by jihadi groups, against both soldiers from local armies and civilians, has been rising. One raid in Mali last year took the lives of some 100 villagers. This year, more than a hundred were killed in an attack in Niger. Three months ago, Islamist insurgents killed at least 160 villagers in the north of Burkina Faso.

And there’s the same sort of disenchantment with governments and government armies as there was in Afghanistan. Corruption and economic hardship feed political grievances in rural areas. So do atrocities. Human Rights Watch recently documented hundreds of “unlawful killings” carried out in counterterror operations by troops from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.


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The final parallel? Like U.S. President Joe Biden in Afghanistan, France’s Emmanuel Macron recently ordered a drawdown of French troops early next year, looking for a more sustainable way of containing the Islamist forces and stabilizing the region. He said France would not fight a “forever” war, and warned that “we cannot secure areas that relapse into lawlessness because states decide not to take responsibility.”

The question now is what the new approach will look like; Afghanistan could offer important lessons.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters/File

A French soldier carries his gear during a military operation against Islamist militants in Mali in 2019. France is drawing down its troops in the country and learning lessons from Afghanistan about fighting insurgencies.

One option Mr. Macron has so far ruled out is a U.S.-style rapid, wholesale end to the Sahel mission. He won’t have missed the terse, bullish response to the Taliban victory in Afghanistan from a top Islamist leader in Mali, Iyad Ag Ghaly: “Two decades of patience. …”

So he’ll be leaving some 2,500 French troops. But the aim is to make them the backbone of a newly created force, called Tabuka, incorporating soldiers from other European countries as well.

And in an approach that he hopes will prove more successful than it proved in Afghanistan, the focus will shift to targeted anti-terror operations and intensified military training programs for Sahel countries’ troops.

Mr. Macron hasn’t hidden his frustration over the domestic turmoil engulfing key Sahel partners – two military coups in Mali, and the assassination of the longtime president of Chad, in the past year. And he is not in the nation-building business. Yet he still feels that long-term stability hinges on the Sahel governments using the billions of dollars they are receiving in European development aid to win the hearts-and-minds battle against the jihadists.

One contrast with Afghanistan is that he, and other European leaders, remain convinced they have a continued interest in trying to make that strategy work. A key reason may be that, while Kabul is some 7,000 miles away from the United States, the Sahel is on Europe’s southern flank. With hundreds of thousands of people already displaced by the fighting, it’s a potential source of a new surge of refugees.

The French leader also clearly believes that the way American troops pulled out of Kabul last month – with almost no warning to their allies – lent further justification to his recent calls for Europe to assert “strategic autonomy” from Washington on challenges near its own borders.

And not just in the Sahel, either. Just this week, at a summit in Baghdad, he declared pointedly that “no matter what choices the Americans make, we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight terrorism.”

There’s a final, potentially critical lesson Mr. Macron appears to have taken from the final stages of the Afghan war, one that could lead to a delicate diplomatic dance in the months ahead with President Biden.

Washington shares French concerns in the Sahel; defending the Afghan pullout, Mr. Biden has cited jihadi threats elsewhere in the world, explicitly mentioning Africa.

And both presidents recognize the importance of a continued American military role in the Sahel.

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But the Americans have signaled that they may be open to the possibility of negotiating with Sahel insurgents, at least those not directly involved in terror attacks.

For Mr. Macron, that has long been a red line. And it will not have escaped his notice that U.S. negotiations with the Taliban paved the way for the Islamists’ victory in Afghanistan. That will almost certainly have hardened his resolve.

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