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Growing war in the Sahel sucks in France and the US

October 31, 2012

The Sahel region is a North African climatological transition area between the arid and barren Sahara Desert to the north and the more humid, wooded savannah regions to the south.  It is a cross-border region that traverses 10 separate African nations, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea (Senegal and Mauritania on the west, through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, N Nigeria, Chad, and Sudan, to Ethiopia and Eritrea in the east).  While historically it has been the home to several rich kingdoms, in the modern period it has been a mostly undeveloped, periphery region in the world system.

Although the Sahel has been demarcated on the map and carved up among the 10 states mentioned above, very few of these states exercise any actual governmental authority or control across large swaths of the Sahel.  Such un-governed spaces are the natural havens for terrorists, criminal gangs, pirates and other non-state actors.   Dr. Francis Galgano published a detailed explication of ungoverned spaces a few years ago that is must-reading for anyone interested in the security and geostrategic implications of such regions.  In addition to specifying a number of critical un-governed spaces around the globe and creating a classification system for understanding them, Galgano noted specifically  that:

There are three principal threats to U.S., European, and regional security interests in Western Africa and the Sahel: 1) the emergence of radical, al Qaeda-linked extremist groups in Nigeria and Niger; 2) the existence of a thriving terror-financing network involved in the purchase and sale of diamonds in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo which fund Hezbollah and al-Qaeda; and 3) the migration of the al-Qaeda-linked Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) into the Sahel.

These concerns are proving prescient today.  Arms and warriors have flooded into the Sahel following the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, further destabilizing the region.  In Mali, a coup earlier this year saw the military upend a nominally democratic regime.  However, the US and France are allying with the military government in a growing proxy war against al Qaeda and ultra-orthodox Islamist groups who have aligned with Touareg nationalist rebels in the un-governed north of that country.   For now, the Franco-American efforts are focusing on an Algerian-led initiative, but Western forces may yet participated directly – France has already moved special forces and surveillance drones into Mali, and has maintained a fairly extensive military presence in Africa throughout the post-colonial period.

All of this comes as the US African Command (AFRICOM) receives a new commander – Gen. David Rodriguez, who boasts extensive combat experience at every level of command, from Panama through both Iraq Wars and Afghanistan.   While most eyes are still on Syria, and with events still unfolding in Libya, watch for the Sahel, especially Mali, to be the next open front in the Terror Wars.

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6 comments

  1. The Obama administration is contemplating broad military, political and humanitarian intervention in Mali, using the model of the stabilization effort in Somalia. Since 2007, the U.S. has spent more than $550 million to help train and supply an African proxy force of about 18,000 soldiers in Somalia, which has brought a measure of order to Somalia.


  2. The United States and other international actors are weighing several policy alternatives following the degeneration of the Malian security situation and the expansion of AQIM and other jihadist groups in the country’s north. In September 2012, Gen. Carter Ham, the top U.S. commander for Africa, said there “are no plans for U.S. direct military intervention” in Mali, but added that logistical and intelligence support may be provided. Some counterterrorism officials say the use of drone strikes and commando raids in the region are under consideration. Targeted killings have been an essential U.S. strategy in the fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. As of July 2012, the Pentagon has fewer than 5,000 personnel, including civilians, on the entire African continent.


  3. […] because the Gulf of Guinea and the states that border it are oil rich, and also because recent reports indicate that the US and other Western nations may be preparing for deeper military ….  These reports focus on Mali and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but most violent group […]


  4. […] While Qatar has a strong relationship with the US that is of high importance for both sides, their current round of diplomacy is independent of the US, and not a proxy for US interests.  Indeed, Qatari money has supported armed groups in Libya and may even have contributed to the razing of the US consulate in Benghazi and the murder of the American ambassador and three other US citizens.  Qatar is also seeking influence in the Sahel in general and Mali in particular.  This puts Qatar directly opposed to US interests, and could even result in armed Qatari proxies engaged in a shooting war with US military forces in the not-too-distant future. […]


  5. […] looking for some good background on the conflict in Mali should read this post from last […]


  6. […] several posts last fall, I made a series of theoretical, statistical and geopolitical background posts to what was then just the first hints of a […]



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