Highly publicised, could the “Haw Bi” (“Black Cow”) operation, the first concrete action by the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S) (Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali), launched on 28 October, just be a media mirage? Because, beyond the authorities’ self-congratulation, arises the question of the African forces’ dependence on French military aid given the paucity of their equipment and total lack of logistic support.
For this inaugural mission, devoid of real military stakes, there were a few hundred Malian, Nigerian and Burkinabé soldiers currently deployed in the Liptako-Gourma region, the epicenter of the recrudescence of terrorist attacks. This operation “embodies the rise in strength of this force, supported by Barkhane, which shows that the Sahelian states are gaining the upper hand in the fight against terrorism,” the French Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, stated on November 2.
There is certainly a ramp up but it is taking a long time. The first reports of Haw Bi gleaned by French journalists recall a scenario which has been oft repeated: a sort of tinkering operation whose success depends as much – if not more – on foreign management than local forces. A scheme already repeated 20 times since 2015 but without much success, terrorists quickly taking control of what had been temporarily secure areas.
The Malian forces (FAMa), to name but them, are “clearly unable to conduct an operation of this magnitude on their own,” a French officer told our colleagues at RFI [Radio France Internationale]. They are not autonomous in water or food, the supply chain is uncoordinated, and they are not all equipped with bulletproof vests or armoured vehicles.
Without Barkhane to ensure the mine-clearing and securing of the bivouac areas, the provision of operational and tactical coordination, the protection on the ground and in the air: there would be no Haw Bi. On the other hand, the Malian press, which stresses that “to be effective, this African force must be autonomous in its operations“, wonders whether France “who wants to play a leading role in this project, will leave the initiative of military operations to the commanders of the G5 Sahel joint force? ”
Clearly, on the ground, the experience of African soldiers is an asset that French troops cannot do without. The members of the FC-G5S are familiar with every route through the Sahel-Saharan belt and know every path and slightest obstacle that could stop the motorised column. “For them, it’s easier to distinguish a terrorist from a farmer, they are at home. And their knowledge of the terrain is paramount,” French infantry captain Gauthier told AFP.
Finally, Haw Bi will not only aim to show that the FC-G5S is now ready to “lead” security activities, but also to induce a ripple effect to accelerate its funding. And, incidentally, to eventually provide an exit door to the 4,000 French soldiers of Operation Barkhane.
In fact, the heart of the problem is, unsurprisingly, funding. The FC-G5S is struggling to mobilise the necessary funds for its operation and has collected, at least in theory, only one third of the required budget, estimated by the UN at €423m. In addition to the €8m aid promised by French President Emmanuel Macron for this year and the delivery of 70 military vehicles, the European Union will commit €50m and the five G5 Sahel countries €10m each.
Faced with the urgency, Macron has also stepped up efforts to integrate the U.S. partner into the aid process. Successfully: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged on October 31 to release up to $60m in aid (€51.5m). “This is a fight we must win, and this money will play a key role in achieving it,” Tillerson said in a statement.
By March-April 2018 the FC-G5S hopes it will reach its nominal capacity of 5,000 men in seven battalions, namely two for Mali and Niger, and one each for Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The general command centre will be the city of Sévaré, in the centre of Mali. Once the FC-G5S is funded and trained, its military action will have to be self-sustaining and autonomous. A serious challenge lies ahead.