West African countries are considering opening talks with jihadis in the region, as a nearly decade-long battle against extremism in the Sahel shows no sign of ending and France’s president Emmanuel Macron signals that he may cut support.
The region’s leaders will meet for a summit — which Macron will attend virtually because of Covid concerns — this week in Chad’s capital N’Djamena. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the senate last week the meeting would mark a “diplomatic, political and development leap” in the allies’ approach to a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions.
France, which leads the fight in the Sahel, has long publicly rejected the idea of talks with Isis- and al-Qaeda-linked groups and Le Drian reaffirmed Macron’s red line on negotiations: “We do not negotiate with terrorists, we fight them”.
But the idea has become popular with regional governments tired of the insurgency and Macron has said France is now focusing on Isis as its enemy rather than “every group that is more or less jihadist”. This month Burkina Faso for the first time said it was open to talks with Islamists whose insurgency has rendered swaths of the once stable country ungovernable.
“If we want to end the security crisis, we will need to find paths and ways to talk with those responsible for terrorist attacks so that we are in peace,” prime minister Christophe Dabiré said in parliament. Mali, where the violence consuming the Sahel began when jihadist groups captured the country’s north in 2012, has also voiced support.
The move toward dialogue showed growing “pragmatism” among not just Sahelian states but also French officials, said Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, senior Sahel analyst for the International Crisis Group. “Governments and their foreign partners [have] grown disillusioned with the hope that jihadis can be defeated militarily.”
France has long justified its presence in the region as a way of helping to prevent Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe. But with growing French disenchantment with the country’s Operation Barkhane, Macron recently signalled that he would reduce France’s troop count and shift more responsibilities to the African states. This week’s summit comes a year after he called on the leaders of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad to France to reaffirm their desire to have the French military in the region amid growing anti-French sentiment as the conflict has dragged on.
France’s threats of a potential withdrawal of forces may be playing into the decision of regional leaders to proffer negotiations, said Arthur Boutellis, senior adviser at the International Peace Institute.
They may be thinking “that it is probably best for them to attempt a dialogue with these jihadist groups now, when they still have the French military leverage [as an] insurance policy, than to later find themselves in a weaker negotiation position, in a situation ‘à la Afghanistan’,” he said.
France’s engagement in the Sahel has drawn comparisons to that costly and unpopular war. Washington and the Taliban signed an agreement last February calling for peace talks and the withdrawal of American troops, nearly twenty years into the conflict.
The situation in the Sahel has deteriorated badly over the past few years, despite the presence of French troops, EU training programmes, US drone support and a 13,000-troop UN peacekeeping mission.
According to data compiled by security analyst Jose Luengo-Cabrera, 2020 saw the highest death toll for the region in a decade, with 6,256 people — including soldiers, extremists, ethnic militia members and civilians — killed in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, a 30 per cent increase from 2019. The number of internally displaced people in the three countries has jumped 12-fold in the last three years, to 1.7m.
Of the region’s jihadist groups, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara is widely seen as the biggest threat. But jihadist groups also work alongside ethnic militias with local grievances to fill vacuums left by neglectful central governments. ISGS is often in conflict with Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), a consortium of al-Qaeda-linked groups.
JNIM has expressed some willingness to negotiate, but only if France fully withdraws from Mali, something Paris is unlikely to commit to. Still, Michael Shurkin, senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, said the distance between Paris and their Sahelian counterparts might not be as great as it seems. Hardline leaders bent on imposing their version of Islamic law might not be worth talking to, but “some members or entire factions might be apt for negotiations” if they addressed specific local grievances, he said.
Bisa Williams, the special adviser on Mali for the Carter Center, said the prospect of talks was aimed squarely at those local issues. “It’s a recognition of the state’s failure to address those grievances effectively as a government and a recognition of the state’s inability to ‘outgun’ the terrorists without wreaking havoc on communities and escalating interethnic conflict,” she said.
Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris