SEVARE, Mali (Reuters) - Snipers from a new West African force lie prone on a rooftop in central Mali, scanning the horizon for Islamist militants who have infiltrated this sparsely populated region south of the Sahara and made it a launchpad for deadly attacks.
Thousands of U.N. peacekeepers, French troops and U.S. military trainers and drone operators have failed to stem a growing wave of jihadist violence, leading international powers to pin their hopes on a new regional force.
But the so-called G5 Sahel initiative faces immense challenges if it is to do any better at bringing security to the arid Sahel region than its countries Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger have managed so far.
Security sources and analysts say too strong an emphasis on military might over tackling the underlying causes of jihad, logistical shortfalls and a lack of cooperation from regional powerhouse Algeria all raise doubts over whether the G5 can succeed where years of Western intervention has not.
“There is a long way to go to reach full operational capacity, even though the timeframe is relatively short,” G5 force commander General Didier Dacko told visiting U.N. Security Council envoys last month, citing a range of needs from aerial support to communications equipment to intelligence gathering.
The United Nations, France and the United States have poured billions of dollars into stabilising the region over the past 15 years but have failed to meaningfully address the many local grievances driving conflict, analysts say.
Political and social tensions, such as a stalled peace process between the government and armed groups in Mali, are pushing youths to jihad, as are growing rivalries between farmers and cattle herders and rights abuses by national armies.
In northern Burkina Faso, for example, preacher Malam Ibrahim Dicko has gained adherents to his militant Ansarul Islam movement by railing against the privileges of traditional elites in a region scarred by widespread poverty.
Some local groups have affiliated themselves with global franchises such as al Qaeda and Islamic State, whose dwindling presence in the Middle East has led Western governments to zero in on the vast lawless tracts of North and West Africa to prevent them finding new footholds.
But the militant groups in the Sahel draw more on frustrations with central governments and the Western forces that back them than a global jihadist agenda, making security-heavy approaches risky, analysts say.
“I think local communities in Mali and Niger feel alienated and confused by the actions of those entities,” said Alexander Thurston, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who specialises in Islam and politics in West Africa.
“The problems require political solutions, ultimately, and the G5 is a small and underfunded force.”
The G5’s backers say they recognise the need for longer-term economic development, not just a beefed-up security presence. In Mali last month, France’s U.N. envoy Francois Delattre called the two “absolutely inseparable”.
But when it comes to coughing up, development often gets short-changed. A U.N. initiative to support regional security, governance and development has only received 30 percent of its budget since 2013, with the latter two areas worst hit.
France is keenly backing the G5, hoping it will provide an eventual exit strategy for its own costly 4,000-strong counter-terrorism taskforce in the region, Operation Barkhane.
“Terrorist groups in the Sahel now represent a global threat,” French Foreign Minster Jean-Yves Le Drian told the Security Council last week. “The G5 Sahel joint force is the right response to this challenge.”
The threat Islamist militants pose was underscored by last month’s attack in Niger that killed eight U.S. and Nigerien troops, prompting American officials to predict U.S. involvement in the region would intensify. [nL8N1N95IZ]
Across the street from the snipers’ perch in Sevare, Mali, inside the G5 headquarters, General Dacko told Security Council diplomats how he planned to take on the 1,000 or so “terrorists” he estimated operate in the area.
Joint patrols, hot pursuit operations and intelligence sharing among the five countries contributing to the force, which should eventually boast nearly 5,000 soldiers, will chase out drug traffickers and militants, he said.
Neither the U.N. mission in Mali, which cannot operate across borders, nor the French taskforce, which has concentrated on training local forces and going after high value targets, has made securing the region’s porous borders a priority.
Last week, the G5 deployed its first several hundred troops from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso to their shared borderlands where jihadists have carried out dozens of attacks this year. [nL2N1N80LR]
“The G5 is a source of hope and we believe in it completely,” Dacko said.
Initially sceptical of the force, the United States pledged up to $60 million last week. Even so, commitments from the G5 countries and donors stand at only a third of the estimated $490 million the force needs in its first year. [nL2N1N5120]
Money, logistical support and local opposition aside, Dacko said he was concerned about the relationship with the continent’s biggest country, Algeria, with which the G5 nations share a collective border roughly 2,500 km (1,500 miles) long.
Islamist militant groups emerged in Algeria in the early 1990s and then spread beyond its borders. The country’s constitution prohibits foreign military intervention but analysts say its collaboration is essential because of its intelligence networks’ intimate knowledge of regional militants.
Dacko, however, said there was no process as yet to formalise security cooperation between the G5 and the North Africa country.
Algerian officials were not immediately available to comment.
A source familiar with the Algerian government’s thinking said it already had channels of cooperation with G5 military officials and questioned the need for a new force.
“You have MINUSMA (the U.N. peacekeeping mission) in Mali ... so why another regional group to fight terror in the Sahel?” the source said.
Algeria also sees the G5 as effectively being controlled by its former colonial master France, with which it fought a bitter independence war and has since regarded with suspicion.
“Algeria perceives the G5 Sahel as an extension of French influence in a region in which Algeria has traditionally been dominant, and in which France has historically played an essentially destabilising role,” Hannah Armstrong, an Algeria expert at the International Crisis Group, said.
Algeria mediated talks leading to the 2015 peace deal in Mali but it is sometimes suspected of not doing all it could to prevent militants using its desert spaces as a rear base.
“It is essential to find ways to partner (with Algeria),” said Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, Mali’s former intelligence chief. “As long as there is not a shared evaluation, you cannot imagine a common course of action.”
Reporting by Aaron Ross; editing by Tim Cocks and David Clarke