France presses for a swift vote on a U.N. resolution endorsing an African force, betting Washington will back down.
The United States and France are hurtling toward a potential dust-up, as the Trump administration weighs vetoing a French Security Council resolution empowering an African counterterrorism force, according to U.S. officials and U.N.-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 semiarid plain that stretches from Senegal to Sudan, and whether French military planners have devised a workable strategy. France spearheaded the effort to assemble the five-nation African anti-terrorism force, known as the G-5, but the countries taking part are looking to the United States, its allies, and the United Nations to share the burden of funding and supporting the cross-border operations.
The negotiations have emerged as a test of will between newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, who traveled to Mali days after being sworn in to underscore France’s commitment to battling Islamic terrorists, and President Donald Trump, who is looking to scale back U.S. funding for multilateral operations. A breach over the Sahel force could place new strains on U.S. relations with France and other governments just weeks after Trump announced plans to withdraw from the Paris climate pact.
The United States, backed by Britain, supports in principle the French and African commitment to take the fight to terrorists. But it has objected to blessing the operation with a U.N. 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 authorize this force,” said a U.S. official, who added that the administration’s concerns went beyond the financial costs. “The recent history of using Security Council resolutions to apply the U.N. imprimatur to hastily crafted mandates without proper on-the-ground oversight and accountability is not glowing.”
A second U.S. official said American diplomats in New York are still trying to persuade the French to back down, but Paris appears intent on “ramming it through and ignoring all of our objections.”
The official noted that the United States is weighing whether to use its veto power if the French do not amend their initiative to address those concerns. But France is betting that the United States will blink if it faces a counterterrorism resolution with broad Security Council support.
For the past four years, France has led international counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, seeking to fill a security vacuum in the region that followed the collapse of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government in 2011. The United States has generally supported that endeavor, providing financial, political, and intelligence support to the French counterterrorism 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-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, dismissed as “crap.”
For France, the initiative offers a model for helping local forces take on terrorists, particularly at a time when the United States and the United Nations are looking to African states to resolve their own security problems.
It is only logical, French diplomats have argued, that the U.N. Security Council, which has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in support for a U.S.-African anti-terrorism force in Somalia, should also support this African-backed mission in Mali.
French officials maintain that their plan, which has been endorsed by the African Union and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, enjoys widespread backing in the 15-nation council, including African states and China.
A draft resolution obtained by Foreign Policy would authorize a force of 5,000 soldiers and police to “take all necessary measures” to combat terrorist groups. Drug dealers and human traffickers who fund terrorists could also be targeted by the force. The French draft also urges the African force to coordinate its operations, and share intelligence, with U.N. peacekeepers in Mali, as well as a French anti-terrorism force.
In a bid to address U.S. concerns that the mandate was too vague, France amended a provision that would have authorized the force to eradicate unspecified terrorist groups and organized crime outfits. A revised version empowers the force to fight U.N.-designated terrorists and associated criminals.
“We have a very strong and large support among the members of the Security Council on this resolution,” François Delattre, France’s U.N. ambassador, told reporters Tuesday. “This is completely consistent with the dynamics at the U.N. to support African forces in Africa. It’s a top priority for the African Union and for this region as a whole, and there cannot be any doubt that there is a real threat to international peace and security here.”
The French need two things from the U.N., according to Arthur Boutellis, the director of the International Peace Institute’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations — more funding for a project they are “already propping up” and an “exit strategy down the road” for thousands of French troops in the region.
“If I were the Americans, or any of the other countries who are being asked to pay, I would ask what kind of difference is that kind of force going to make,” Boutellis told FP.
It remains unclear whether U.S. resistance to the French initiative is being shaped by American misgivings about the strategy or “whether it is shaped purely by the money,” said Richard Atwood, the New York director of the International Crisis Group.
Atwood said the French properly recognize the need to strengthen border security in a region flush with jihadis and organized criminal groups. But he cautioned that the French were seeking an overly broad mandate without having a clear enough “definition of the enemy.” In a place like Mali, he noted, it can be difficult to separate the terrorists, smugglers, and “armed groups on the right side of the line.”
Since the fall of Qaddafi, the Sahel has emerged as a haven for terrorists and a transit point for arms dealers, drug traffickers, and human smugglers.
One U.N.-based official said Washington’s reticence is driven in part by “stinginess” but also by a sense that “they are being dragged into something that is not properly cooked. Paris will need to do a lot more work on D.C.”
Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, recalled that the United States resisted earlier French calls for U.N. support for an African anti-terrorism force to battle the Nigeria-based terrorist organization Boko Haram.
Gowan said the United States has long had a “creeping suspicion” that any U.N. proposal to authorize a new African force will be followed by a request for money to fund it. But, he added, “my guess is that this is more about long-standing U.S. concerns about the viability of African missions than a Trump administration snub to Paris.”
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