Chad: Notes on Ben Taub’s Recent New Yorker Piece

I like the journalist Ben Taub’s work a lot, and there is much to like in his latest, on rebellions in Chad, for the New Yorker. Taub gets into the politics of the recent rebel advance – and the French airstrikes that followed – in northern Chad, developments I have covered a bit here.

The central argument of Taub’s piece is one that I agree with, and that I rarely see stated so bluntly in the American media: propping up dictators is bad.

After decades of supporting Sahelian strongmen, and turning a blind eye to their abuses, Western countries have been unable to devise any regional strategy except one that conflates the strength of a regime with the stability of a country, and which brings about neither stability nor strength.

Taub falls into the occasional cliché – “jihadi groups thrive in the margins of broken states” – but he also sees through the current rhetoric about “terrorism” coming from both Chad and France. What follows that line about “broken states,” for example, is very good:

and, where there are no terrorists, [Chadian President Idriss] Déby has seen it as politically advantageous to fabricate them. In the aftermath of the French air strikes, his forces arrested some two hundred and fifty rebels and announced that they would be tried as “terrorists,” without the veneer of judicial protections typically afforded to criminals, traitors, or whatever category would normally apply to political opponents and army defectors who have attempted a coup. The designation is convenient for France, too; the legal mandate for Operation Barkhane is counterterrorism, not killing men who have had enough of Déby’s rule. But the facts are being obscured amid staged cries of victory.

Taub goes on to make some very grim predictions:

Absent radical changes in local Sahelian governance and priorities, no humanitarian crisis in Africa’s recent history will compare to the hell to come. What is likely doesn’t have to be inevitable. The question for Western governments is whether they will be complicit in its acceleration.

There are huge questions to ponder here. Is demography destiny in the Sahel? Is the most likely future one of brittle (or collapsing) regimes, with popular desires for change channeled largely or solely into violence? Will the Sahel of 2050 be the frontline of climate apocalypse? There is definitely good reason to think so. But in addition to highlighting the agency of Western governments, one should also keep in mind the agency of Sahelians themselves. Multiple futures are possible for the region, and who knows – maybe increasing crisis and fragility will elicit not just chaos but also creativity.

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Chad: Rebel Advances and French Airstrikes in the North

Reuters:

French warplanes struck a rebel convoy in northern Chad on Sunday, helping local troops repel an incursion across the border from Libya…

Mirage jets struck a column of 40 pickups carrying armed groups from Libya deep into Chadian territory, the French army said in a statement…

The Union of Forces of Resistance (UFR), a rebel Chadian coalition created in 2009 after almost toppling Deby, said it was behind the offensive. [The Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic or] CCMSR is a splinter group of the UFR.

Let’s add a bit more context. The French military’s statement is brief and vague, saying merely that some Mirage 2000 fighter jets took off from Chad’s capital N’Djamena at the request of the Chadian government. One fighter jet patrol made a “show of force” to warn the rebel convoy; the rebels did not halt, so a second patrol conducted two strikes on the convoy. In terms of the rebel groups, it’s worth noting that the CCMSR was often in the news (and on this blog) in the second half of 2018, but they have been relatively quiet of late, including in the media sphere.

RFI gives a few more details on the French airstrikes, namely (a) the convoy had been frustrating Chadian forces’ attempts to destroy it for two days before the strikes, (b) the strikes occurred at least 400km from the Chadian border with Libya,* and (c) the French forces were part of Operation Barkhane. That operation is widely understood as a Sahelian counterterrorism force, but last August’s transfer of a Barkhane base from N’Djamena to Wour (map) was, perhaps, a signal that Barkhane was making itself available to Chad as an anti-rebel force. There is a much longer history of French support to Chadian President Idriss Deby, including amid rebellions that have threatened his power in the past, so these dynamics extend well beyond just Barkhane.

For a bit of the UPR’s perspective, here is an interview with a UPR spokesman on TV5.

As several colleagues have pointed out, there are more questions than answers here:

*Le Figaro adds, imprecisely, that the strikes fell “between Tibesti and Ennedi,” which doesn’t quite make sense to me.

France’s Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly in Chad

Yesterday French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly visited Chad. She met President Idriss Deby and Defense Minister Bichara Issa Djadallah, and she visited military bases connected with the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multi-National Joint Task Force.

The visited seems meant as a vote of French confidence in Chad and as a further demonstration of French support for these two African-led regional counterterrorism forces. It is hard not to think that the visit is also at least partly in response to recent flickers of insecurity in Chad, including the CCMSR rebellion in the north and a recent Boko Haram attack near Lake Chad. RFI predicted that issues of financing and strengthening the G5 Sahel Joint Force “will be at the center of the discussions.” RFI adds that French President Emmanuel Macron may visit Chad around Christmas to see French troops there.

Finally, a quick note on Djadallah – he’s something of a fixture in the defense ministry, having been in his current role since August 2016 (making him something of a survivor amid repeated cabinet reshuffles) and he previously served in the role in 2008.

Amplifying and Extending Martha Crenshaw’s Recommendation for Peace Talks with al-Qaida and the Islamic State

In September, Stanford’s Martha Crenshaw – a longtime expert on terrorism – published an essay in Foreign Policy arguing that the time has come for peace talks with al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The idea of talks is not new, but it is important.

Here is a key excerpt:

Given jihadis’ adaptability and diffusion, options to combat them with force are limited. One alternative is to try to solve the root causes of the problem by removing the conditions that make jihad attractive. But even if the multiple political, economic, and social causes of violence could be identified, addressing them is a costly endeavor requiring a good deal of patience and persistence. The current U.S. administration seems to have little of either.

[…]

The bottom line is that a military defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and even in Iraq would not mean the end of terrorism and extremism. The Islamic State has vowed to continue its struggle and has called for attacks in the West. And al Qaeda and its network of allies stand to benefit from the downfall of their preeminent rival in the Middle East. Most of the underlying problems that led to the ascendance of jihadi organizations, meanwhile, persist. There is no simple answer to dealing with such a complex, expansive, and volatile threat. But it is worth considering all options, including negotiations with selected parties.

From what I can tell, the piece did not get much attention, but the comments it did get ran strongly in a negative/critical direction (these include comments on the article itself, although these comments are barely worth reading, and comments on Twitter). As someone in broad agreement with Crenshaw, I’d like to respond to some of the criticisms and then flesh out what talks might entail – because my own critique of Crenshaw’s piece is that it does not give enough detail about what talks would look like.

One kind of criticism was faux-shocked dismissiveness. That kind of criticism, I think, is barely worth engaging; seventeen years into the War on Terror, the burden should be on proponents of the status quo to defend it. Unorthodox ideas deserve, at the least, a fair hearing and a reasoned rebuttal.

Another kind of criticism was the argument that talks “would bestow legitimacy on groups that the vast majority of locals abhor” and that it is “far better to address the deep grievances that drive people to join them in the first place.” But Crenshaw has already pointed out – and the evidence is firmly on her side – that “address[ing] deep grievances” is difficult in analytical terms, costly in financial and military terms, and requires patience in terms of timelines, policy continuity, and political will. Crenshaw is talking about policy options predicated on the obvious likelihood that “deep grievances” will not go away any time soon.

The idea of “legitimacy” is also backwards, on multiple levels. If one wants to be a gritty realist, then legitimacy does not matter – what matters is the advancement of core interests. At present, I would argue, the War on Terror is an unsustainable drain on resources and an unsuccessful venture with dim prospects for a turnaround. Severe conflicts around the world have not been remedied through the War on Terror framework, and that framework has in some cases caused and/or exacerbated conflict.

If one wants to talk about legitimacy, though, or about moral standing, then I would actually argue that the United States and other Western powers could increase their legitimacy by displaying a willingness to talk to jihadists. First of all, we would show that we are unafraid of hearing anyone’s perspective, including perspectives that are sharply critical of American/Western foreign policy. We would show that we are confident enough in our own moral stature that we will meet with anyone, any time, and see whether we have any common ground with them.

Second, an offer to talk would go a long ways toward undercutting jihadists’ self-presentation as a revolutionary, anti-systemic force in the contemporary world. Under current policy, by insisting that jihadists are and must be outside of all mainstream politics, the U.S. ends up inadvertently reinforcing jihadists’ image as revolutionary actors, and even inadvertently reinforcing their romantic appeal to some of their recruits. If, instead, we offered to negotiate with them, we could in effect say, “You are no different than other violent actors who have come before you. We see nothing special about you. Whenever you want to talk, we will talk, and until you are ready to make peace we will fight you, whether we are talking or not.”

Another line of criticism toward Crenshaw’s argument came from International Crisis Group’s Sam Heller. In a Twitter thread, Heller fixated on Crenshaw’s skepticism toward military solutions – but Heller ultimately didn’t take a clear position on whether to negotiate or not, and so he just ended up muddying the waters. He concluded, “Military force alone can’t deliver holistic, lasting solutions. But it seems incorrect to dismiss it totally.” Heller misrepresents Crenshaw’s position here; she does not “dismiss [military force] totally,” but rather says essentially what Heller says about it. Again, Heller’s phrasing is that “military force alone can’t deliver holistic, lasting solutions”; Crenshaw’s phrasing is that “more often than not, moreover, outside intervention ends an immediate crisis but leaves unresolved or even exacerbates the underlying problems that brought it about.” Heller is right, in his thread, to question the high number Crenshaw gives for the Islamic State’s remaining fighters in Iraq, but none of the issues he raises make much of a dent in her core argument.

My own take on Crenshaw’s piece is broad agreement, but also a desire for a more precise articulation of what negotiations might look like. So it’s worth disaggregating the idea of negotiations and offering a few possibilities:

  1. Direct negotiations between the United States and jihadists with the aim of forestalling further attacks on the United States.
  2. U.S. (or European, etc.) rhetorical and logistical support for negotiations between another government and that country’s jihadists.
  3. U.S. (or French, British, etc.) non-interference in efforts by another government to negotiate with that country’s jihadists.
  4. U.S. pressure on another government to turn that government’s secret deals with jihadists into public negotiations/agreements.

Once you disaggregate the proposal, it becomes easier to discuss, evaluate, and implement. So, in terms of #1, I think that it would be a good idea to appoint a U.S. Special Envoy for Non-State Actors (and to proclaim a willingness to talk with anyone, any time). But I actually think the most room for progress right now is with #2 and #3. There are voices out there who favor negotiations between their own governments and jihadists, but whose proposals have been essentially shot down by Western governments (this was the case when France publicly dismissed Malian civil society calls for the Malian government to negotiate with Malian jihadists).

I think too that more explicit Western support for negotiations could help with #4. If we support third-party negotiations or at least don’t stand in the way, that would signal to governments who already deal with jihadists that it’s time to bring those deals out into the open. Openness, in turn, would allow publics to weigh in and would make geopolitics and local politics more transparent.

After all, it’s one thing for analysts to debate “whether we should negotiate with jihadists” – but it’s another thing to really grapple with the policy ramifications of something like the Associated Press article on Yemen from this August. That article asserted the existence of deals between the Saudi and Emirati governments on the one side, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula on the other. The same article asserted that “key participants in the pacts said the U.S. was aware of the arrangements and held off on any drone strikes.” So let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the United States and its entirely wholesome partners are locked in a battle of good and evil with jihadists. In the real world, politics is a mess and neither we nor are partners are as wholesome as one would like. In that world, do you prefer secret deals or public deals? I would take the latter.

Roundup on the High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel at the United Nations General Assembly

On 26 September, a “High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel” took place on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. The meeting focused heavily on the issue of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. Here are a few relevant links:

  • The conclusions of the event (English and French). Key quote: “Participants welcomed the progress in operationalizing the Joint Force and condemned the attack of 29 June against its Headquarters in Sévaré. They expressed solidarity with the Joint Force and concerned countries. They welcomed the European Union’s commitment to rebuild the Headquarters. Participants affirmed that mobilizing adequate support for the full operationalization of the Joint Force was critical to its success and called upon Member States to provide the necessary support to the Joint Force as per the recommendations of the Secretary-General contained in his report of 16 October 2017 (S/2017/869) and resolution 2391 (2017). They encouraged the members of the Group of Five for the Sahel to establish a political and strategic framework for the Joint Force. “
  • United Nations Secretary General António Guterres’ remarks (French and English). Key quote: “My longstanding position is that the G5-Sahel Joint Force is an important demonstration of regional ownership.  It needs a strong mandate and sustained and predictable funding.”
  • Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s remarks (French). Key quote: “The Malian state has modest resources, which do not allow it to implement all of the engagements accepted in the Accord within the prescribed period. That is why I reiterate my call for the rapid and effective mobilization of the resources promised by our partners.”
  • High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini’s remarks (French). Key quote: “Together, you are stronger. That is why we have decided to invest a lot in the G5 Sahel.”
  • On Twitter, Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Alpha Barry called for “speed in partners’ support to the G5 Sahel so that the joint force becomes operational on the ground.”
  • Here is a brief readout (French) from Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ismaël Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech (French) to the entire General Assembly is also worth reading.

Here are a few relevant tweets:

French President Emmanuel Macron’s Remarks on the Sahel and Libya

Yesterday, 27 August, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed (French) an official conference of ambassadors in France. He devoted a fair amount of time to discussing the Sahel and Libya. I’ve translated a portion of his remarks:

In the Sahel, we have maintained our military engagement through Operation Barkhane. Here I want to salute all our soldiers who, since 2013, have been courageously engaged in this difficult operating theater. It is this presence and that of MINUSMA that have avoid the worst in the region and have, in particular, allowed elections to be held this month in Mali. In this region, we have obtained important victories in recent months against the terrorist presence, but this action must be pursued with the same intensity, but in complementing the presence of the Barkhane Force will multiple approaches begun in July 2017.

First, we have supported and accelerated the creation of the joint forces of the G5 Sahel. I am convinced that our military action will actually be still more effective if it works together better with the implication of the five concerned Sahel countries. We have raised funds, encouraged the first operations of the forces. Several times, I have traveled to observe these advances, and with all of the heads of state and government involved, we have improved our organization.

This organization is the only one that, in the long term, will allow stability because it fully involves the five concerned countries of the Sahel in their own security. We have to watch over its implementation and in the coming weeks and the coming months, we will have to conduct new joint operations with the forces of the G5. We also have to reinforce our cooperation with Algeria, which is exposed to the same terrorist risk, as well as with Nigeria and Cameroon, which are engaged against Boko Haram.

Second, we have encouraged the empowerment of the Africa Union. That is what I spoke in favor of last July at the Nouakchott Summit before the African Union. It is what I will have the chance to bring up in the near future with President Trump and President Kagame, current chairperson of the African Union. We must work to create credible African peace operations and ensure stable and predictable financing for them, in particular between the United Nations, the African Union, and the sub-regional organizations.

Third, we have complemented our military action with the reinforcement and simplification of our action in the field of development, by creating the Alliance for the Sahel together with Germany and many other international donors. These are the complementary “3Ds” that I mentioned last year: Diplomacy, Development, and Defense. We have begun to deploy the first operations in the field of education, agriculture, or economically more widely, in many countries of the region. Each time the ground is taken back from the enemy, it must be accompanied by new projects which will let us give economic and educational perspectives, life perspectives to the populations which, at a given moment, could have been seduced. Here I want to salute the action and the results obtained in Mauritania, Niger, and Chad. In the coming months, we have to bring all our help to the stability and the reconquest of certain regions in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Fourth, the question of the Sahel will not be truly solved so long as the stability of Libya is not assured. The chaos that has reigned in Libya since 2011 has led to the creation of routes organized for the trafficking of drugs, human beings, and arms. The entire Sahelo-Saharan band has always been a region of commerce and traffic, but today these routes are ones of misery and terrorism. So long as we have not stabilized Libya, it will be impossible to enduringly stabilize the Sahel.

A few thoughts:

  • I do not think the G5 joint force will live up to Macron’s hopes for it.
  • The language around development is strikingly militarized. I shouldn’t be surprised, after seeing the Bush and Obama administrations adopt similar language (right down to the three, or four, or five Ds, or however many it’s up to now), but it still stands out: the idea of development “operations,” etc.
  • The idea of Nigerien, Mauritanian, and Chadian successes as contrasted with Malian and Burkinabé failures suggests perhaps a bit too much faith in the current “good guys” of the Sahel.

Sahelian Governments’ Readouts of the 2 July Nouakchott Meeting on the G5 Sahel

On 2 July, amid the African Union summit in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, the presidents of France and five Sahelian countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) met to discuss Sahelian security generally and the G5 Sahel Joint Force specifically. One outcome of the meeting was the sack of the Joint Force’s commander, Malian General Didier Dacko.

For French speakers, though, I thought it would be useful to round up all the official readouts of the meeting I could find. The Chadian presidency and the Nigerien presidency released official statements, while Mali’s president did a wide-ranging interview with France24 on the margins of the summit and (so far as I could tell) Burkina Faso’s president did not release a readout, just two comments on Twitter. As for Mauritania, the official Agence Mauritanienne d’Information released a readout here. Finally, the French president’s remarks to the press can be found here.

To me the most interesting readout was the Nigerien version, which had a few highlights (other than the main theme of the meeting, which seems to have been “let’s get this thing going a lot more”):

  • The G5 countries will now move to rebuild the damaged force headquarters in Sévaré, Mali;
  • They will continue to pursue a United Nations Chapter Seven mandate for the force (more backstory here), which might help resolve some of its financial problems; and
  • The regional governments will meet again in Nouakchott on 6 December.