The unwinnable war in the Sahara that the West doesn’t want you to know about

Britain joins the US and France, which are floundering as human trafficking and drug smuggling mix with Islamist groups in the region.

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The British government is about to deploy helicopters to Mali. “We are yet to finalise deployment dates, but we expect the Chinooks to deploy in the near future,” a Ministry of Defence spokesman told the New Statesman.

Sending the three helicopters to join other RAF aircraft supporting the French operation in Mali, codenamed Operation Barkhane, was first announced during the visit to Downing Street by the French President Emmanuel Macron in January.

The January announcement attracted relatively little comment, but it should not obscure just what a quagmire the force will be entering. They will be going into the Sahel – the vast region stretching from Mauritania on the Atlantic to Eritrea on the Red Sea. It has been traversed by traders, who carried gold, salt and slaves from Africa to the Arab states of North Africa for thousands of years.

Today the same routes carry very different cargoes. Smugglers, who once traded in cigarettes, now transport Latin American cocaine destined for Europe. The drug is landed in Guinea Bissau, named as a narco-state by the UN. There is human trafficking, smuggling refugees and the trans-shipment of weapons. Some of this traffic is conducted by traditional traders; some controlled by the Islamist groups now operating in the region.

This map captures the complex reality of these trans-Saharan operations.

Just how dangerous the region can be was underlined by two recent attacks. On 2 March, a co-ordinated series of attacks in Burkina Faso on the military headquarters in the capital, Ouagadougou, as well as the French embassy and French cultural centre left at least 28 people dead.

The attacks were claimed by al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM). In a statement they said this was in retaliation for the deaths of several of its commanders during three raids by French forces.

The second incident took place in Niger on 4 October last year. A 40-strong American and Nigerien patrol was attacked by a marginally larger group of Islamist fighters. The response was poor, and four American special forces were killed before air support was available.  

The loss of the American troops led to considerable concern in Washington: the public has little idea of why their forces are in Africa or whom they are fighting.

These attacks give an indication of some of the forces involved in this ongoing war. Here is a simplified breakdown:

Islamist groups and other non-state actors

These fall into two groups. The most significant non-state actors are the Tuareg, who live across several states in central Sahara. Some 5,000 were recruited by Colonel Gaddafi as soldiers in his military, but when his regime collapsed in 2011, the Tuareg returned to Mali.

Better armed and better trained than before, they established a short-lived state of their own, Azawad. A peace agreement was signed between Mali and Azawad in 2015, but it is regularly broken.

The second are the Islamists – some of whom are affiliated to al Qaeda and others to the Islamic State. IRIN (formerly the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks), which provides humanitarian news and analysis, has produced an excellent guide to the many groups involved.

There is little love lost between these groups, with factions regularly splitting and reforming as alliances shift and leaders gain or lose supporters. Some leaders, like Mokhtar Belmokhtar, are regularly reported to have been killed, only to emerge alive and with a new following.

African allies and their international supporters

Two African alliances have been formed to combat these movements. One brings together five nations: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Called G5, it consists of 5,000 troops.

The second operates further south and is mainly aimed at fighting Nigeria’s Boko Haram. This is the Multinational Joint Task Force, comprises some 7,500 personnel from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.

In January 2015, the Task Force suffered a major setback when its headquarters, in the Nigerian town of Baga, was overrun by Boko Haram fighters, and it has since been transferred to the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.

The Africans are supported by several international missions. The United Nations has its own 14,000 strong force – MINUSMA, but it has struggled to make much of an impact and continues to take casualties. Four UN troops were killed earlier this month, when their vehicle hit a mine in central Mali.

The French – who never left Africa, in the way Britain did – have their own mission: Operation Barkhane. With just 3,000 troops, it is regarded as one of the most effective forces in the region.

The European Union has played it part, pouring money into the Sahel and attempting to establish a “co-ordination hub” to try to avoid duplication of effort and waste.

US Africa Command (Africom) – President Donald Trump’s African forces – carry out regular training missions across the Sahel. They also have a substantial presence in Niger. There will soon be two US military bases on its soil, with one near the city of Agadez dedicated to drones. The drone base is reported to be substantial, and little loved by the locals. Armed drones have been used extensively on the other side of the continent in attacks on the Somali Islamists of al-Shabab.

This is the situation into which the Chinooks are being deployed, although they may not be the only British forces in the area. “A small number of special Italian and British forces are deployed in Niger but all this is very hush-hush,” reported Francis Ghiles, an analyst with a long history of writing on the region. 

It is hard to see how a small British contribution can turn the tide across such a vast region, with such complex and competing forces. International forces come and go. The Sahara remains what it has been for centuries, a sea of sand across which goods and arms are traded, and ideas are spread: it is unlikely to change.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.