U.S. Tussles With France, U.N. Over Counterterrorism Efforts in West Africa

The Trump administration seeks to put an American in charge of the U.N. mission in Mali.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Senegalese forces with the U.N. Mission in Mali on patrol.
Senegalese forces with the U.N. mission in Mali secure the perimeter of a temporary camp in central Mali's Dogon region on July 4, 2019. Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

For more than three years, the Trump administration has questioned the value of a multibillion-dollar peacekeeping mission in West Africa touted as a bulwark against the region’s terrorist networks. Now, the United States is promoting an American national to take the helm of the United Nations mission in Mali, fueling suspicions that Washington is seeking to expand its influence there to hasten the gradual drawdown of the mission.

Trump administration officials have been quietly lobbying diplomats from France and the United Nations to appoint David Gressly, a veteran American U.N. official who has held a number of senior posts at the world body, as the U.N. special representative for Mali, overseeing a force of more than 11,000 African and European blue helmets. If selected, he would replace a former Chadian foreign minister, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, who is scheduled to step down at the beginning of next year after five years on the job. 

But France—which maintains a counterterrorism force of more than 4,500 troops in the semiarid West African Sahel region—has been cool to the prospect of an American leading the mission, preferring that the post be filled by an African candidate from a French-speaking country, according to Western and U.N. officials familiar with the matter. The U.N. mission, known as MINUSMA, constitutes a critical pillar of French ambitions to ultimately extricate itself from costly counterterrorism operations in the wider Sahel. France has urged the U.N. to expand its role in the region, providing logistical support to a coalition of regional governments, the G5 Sahel, that Paris hopes can fill the gap when French forces begin to depart.

The United States has long been skeptical of the French approach, citing the failure of the United Nations, Paris, and its African allies to curb the rise of Islamist terrorists and broker peace between Mali’s central government and northern Tuaregs. The extremist groups, some affiliated with the Islamic State and al Qaeda, have spread from vast swaths of rural areas in Mali farther east and south, to Niger and Burkina Faso in recent years. The groups have exploited local grievances to gain political footholds in regions struggling with weak governance and limited development.

Violent incidents in the region linked to extremist groups have doubled every year since 2015, despite billions of dollars of international aid and military assistance to regional governments to quell the violence. It has led to growing frustration in Washington with the U.N. mission—both its steep price tag and its leader, Annadif.

“[Annadif] might have once had the potential to have been an effective leader for the mission, but that moment has long past,” said one U.S. official with experience working on the issue. “Annadif’s only utility seems to be as the bureaucrat in charge of what is effectively a billion-dollar air services group that runs shuttle service for Malian VIPs and logistics support [for] French Operation Barkhane,” the official said, referring to the French counterterrorism operation.

“Other than that, he hasn’t achieved any of the political objectives that are the reason for having MINUSMA in the first place.”

The French want to adapt the mission and expand its mandate to support operations beyond Mali’s border, an initiative that comes with greater costs, officials familiar with the matter said. But the Trump administration—which have shown greater skepticism toward the U.N. and tried unsuccessfully last year to shave 2,000 troops from the Mali mission—is expected to renew its campaign to cap costs and troop levels, several U.S. officials familiar with the matter said. The United States wants to advance a plan in which the mission has clear-cut benchmarks for success and a timetable to wind down operations without expanding the mission’s budget, U.S. officials said.

MINUSMA was established in April 2013 after French forces intervened in the country to quash an insurgency in northern Mali by Islamist militants that threatened to seize control of the former French colony. The United Nations’ deadliest mission, which has lost some 209 blue helmets in the line of duty, is charged with stabilizing the country’s northern and central regions and brokering an elusive peace deal between the country’s ruling elites in Bamako and the northern Tuaregs.

The selection of Gressly to be the new head of the mission would make a departure from Annadif, the latest in a string of African and European diplomats who have led the U.N. mission. Bintou Keita, a senior U.N. official in Africa, and El Ghassim Wane, a former African Union Commission official, are also being considered for the position, according to Africa Intelligence, the news site that was first to report on Gressly’s bid for the job and tensions between the United States and France. 

Despite criticism from some in Washington, Annadif had gained a reputation in other U.N. circles as a savvy political operator who had extensive contacts among government and armed opposition groups. Gressly, one U.N. official said, would have big shoes to fill.

The succession dispute comes as the United States mulls drawing down its military footprint from Africa—a move sharply opposed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who fear such a move would undercut long-standing counterterrorism priorities and strengthen the hand of China on the continent. Top French officials have also urged the U.S. military to maintain its footprint in West Africa. French troops rely on U.S. logistical, drone, and intelligence support for their operations in the region. “If the Americans were to decide to leave Africa, it would be really bad news for us,” French President Emmanuel Macron said after a summit with African leaders in January. “I hope to be able to convince President [Donald] Trump that the fight against terrorism also plays out in this region.”

It also comes as the United States and France gear up for a diplomatic struggle over the future of the Mali mission at the U.N. Security Council, which needs to vote to extend the mission’s term by the end of June. In January, the United States called for cutting the number of U.N. peacekeepers in Mali, but the move was swiftly criticized by France and Russia. 

A State Department spokesperson, however, pushed back on the characterization that Washington and Paris were clashing over Sahel policy. “We aren’t going to comment on our internal diplomatic negotiations ahead of next month’s mandate renewal, but contrary to the press reports, the consultations between France and the United States on this issue have been, in fact, cordial and constructive,” the spokesperson said.

In recent months, the Trump administration also pressed for NATO to open discussions on the terrorism threat in the Sahel, with an eye toward eventually considering a NATO mission to support regional stability. Two U.S. officials in Washington cautioned that this idea was in its early stages and not set in stone nor has it become a major agenda item for NATO leaders in Brussels. The officials said such a mission would fall in line with Trump’s repeated requests for the alliance to do more on counterterrorism and address the need for more international involvement in the Sahel. But it’s unclear if other NATO members would go along with such a plan, including France, which is pressing for more Sahel engagement at the European Union level instead. NATO would only agree to such a mission if it had consensus among its 30 members and an invitation from the African governments in question. (A NATO spokesperson declined to comment.) 

U.S. lawmakers have also grown increasingly concerned with how extremist groups in the Sahel are rapidly gaining power and prominence in the region. Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a bill that would, among other things, prompt the administration to write an interagency strategy on how it is addressing terrorism threats in North and West Africa. The bill is now with the Senate, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on it Thursday. 

Gressly, a former Peace Corps volunteer, also has extensive experience in the region.  He has overseen humanitarian operations and served as the deputy special representative in Mali. One U.N. official described him as a “tough guy, very operational” but lacking the political skills of the current occupant of the job. 

“He’s a serious and very committed guy,” the official said, adding that he could sometimes be “a bit of a bully.”

Others challenged that account, saying that Gressly had racked up extensive political experience during a lengthy U.N. career serving in senior positions in South Sudan, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

In the first half of 2013, Gressly played a role in initiating preliminary political contacts between the Malian government and armed groups in Northern Mali, shuttling regularly for talks between Bamako and Kidal. Gressly was a candidate for the top U.N. job in Mali in the past, but his bid was opposed by France, which backed a Tunisian candidate for the job.

Gressly was appointed U.N, deputy special representative for the U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2015. Last June, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres tapped him to coordinate the U.N. response to the Ebola epidemic there.

Despite France’s misgivings about U.S. proposals on the Sahel, Paris has been making inquiries with French diplomats and military officers who have served with Gressly, a potential sign that it is a least considering the prospect of his appointment, according to a diplomatic source.

Some U.N. officials speculated that there could be an upside for the French if an American were appointed for the job. Having an American in the post, they said, could convince Washington to reconsider its push to downsize or shutter the mission.

“French diplomats and defense officials have been urging the U.S. for the last few months to maintain support for the mission,” one U.N. official said. “If Annadif is not seen as an effective mission manager, Gressly would be stronger on that front.”

Update, May 21, 2020: The story was updated to include additional names being considered for the MINUSMA post and reporting from news site Africa Intelligence. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch