A Critical Reading of an Interview with Operation Barkhane’s General Cyril Carcy

When writing yesterday’s post on the Franco-Sahelien security summit in Nouakchott, I spent some time looking at sources from France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane, as part of my attempt to assess what military progress French forces have really made in the Sahel. One item I found was this interview with Barkhane’s General Cyril Carcy, Deputy for Operations. I’d like to discuss a few misconceptions – or outright errors, in my view – that appear in Carcy’s responses.

First, Carcy appears to have a somewhat strange understanding of the two main jihadist formations in the Sahel, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. One odd thing is the translation and acronym for JNIM that Carcy uses. The standard translation, in both English and French, is “the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims.” In French this is usually rendered Groupe de soutien à l’islam et aux musulmans or Groupe pour le soutien de l’islam et des musulmans (in either case, abbreviated GSIM). Carcy, however, calls JNIM the “Rassemblement pour la victoire de l’Islam et des musulmans (RVIM),” which I would translate as “Assembly for the Victory of Islam and Muslims.” Leaving the issue of “assembly” versus “group” aside, I think that translating the Arabic “nusra” as “support” or “aid” is better than translating it as “victory,” and this nuance can matter for how you understand JNIM’s self-presentation. The translator who supplied this phrase to Carcy may have been working from the Arabic version of JNIM that one sometimes sees, namely Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin, where you could translate “nasr” as “victory” (although you could also translate it as “help/support.” But in official JNIM releases I’ve typically seen “nusra” instead of “nasr.” It’s not a big deal, I suppose, but it’s just an odd note at the beginning of the interview, given how widespread the GSIM acronym and the attendant translation are in Francophone media.

More substantively, Carcy has an understanding of JNIM that is both highly al-Qaida-centric and oddly ethnicized. He says the following:

The face of Al Qaida is manifested through the Assembly for the Victory of Islam and Muslims (RVIM) created March 1st 2017 by Iyad Ag Ghali. It is an identitarian model aiming to safeguard a way of life, fairly close to that of the Tuareg, but also aiming to preserve a space allowing itself to engage in the worst forms of trafficking.

The remark about trafficking captures something of the situation, but Carcy’s casual mention of trafficking obscures wider dynamics. As Crisis Group has written, the implication of drug traffickers in northern Mali is wide-ranging and complex:

Major traffickers maintain relations with both Malian authorities – which the latter denies – and political and military groups in the north; indeed often trafficking networks are embedded in, or overlap with, those groups, who themselves depend on trafficking to finance their operations and to buy weapons. That said, ties between armed groups and traffickers are not trouble-free: they do not always share the same interests. Rivalries among trafficking networks sometimes provoke confrontation between armed groups that those groups would prefer to avoid.

Meanwhile, Carcy’s remarks about “an identitarian model aiming to safeguard a way of life” are basically wrong, I would say. In my view JNIM is a complex coalition. On one level, JNIM is a vehicle for the political ambitions of Iyad ag Ghali, which are related to the preservation and expansion of his own position within northern Malian politics and the politics of the entire region. Even though ag Ghali hails from a “noble” clan within the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation and even though he has frequently shown those aristocratic colors in his political maneuvering, he has also proven repeatedly disruptive to hierarchies and political settlements in northern Mali and beyond. Ag Ghali is not the avatar of tradition against modernity or whatever. On another level, JNIM is the latest focal point for hardline jihadists in the region, who may have substantially affected ag Ghali’s worldview and identity, but are also not themselves fundamentally seeking to “safeguard a way of life” connected to the Tuareg (or the Arabs or the Peul). Finally, as that parenthetical indicates, JNIM is not – in my understanding – a Tuareg ethnic formation even if though is led by a prominent Tuareg politician. Ironically, when and where JNIM is accused of serving an ethnic agenda, it is accused of serving a Peul ethnic agenda in the center of Mali – and that accusation, too, is off base. In central Mali, to compress a lot of research (mostly by others!) into one sentence, JNIM has championed the interests of particular segments of society, including Peul shepherds against both Peul oligarchs and Dogon farmers. But JNIM is not trying to rewind the clock of history or to stave off historical change. Rather, JNIM seeks to be an agent of radical change not just in military facts on the ground but in intra-communal and inter-communal relations in the Mopti Region of Mali and elsewhere.

Carcy’s understanding of ISGS is also off base, I would say. Here is his framing:

ISGS is an internationalist model founded upon a millenarian ideology…Composed of young people who have turned toward jihadism for lack of social prospects, ISGS seeks to extend its zone of predation in order to increase its recruiting ground, as well as its financing through zakat [Islamic tithe].

Why is JNIM an “identitarian model” while ISGS is an “internationalist model”? If JNIM is recruiting down-and-out youth, what’s necessarily “internationalist” about that? And it is true that the Islamic State’s central leadership has been rhetorically millenarian – but is that true for ISGS? I haven’t seen much end-of-the-world talk in their statements. And is it true that most of their financing is through “zakat”? I wonder what kinds of intelligence briefings Carcy and other top Barkhane commanders are getting, and where the underlying information comes from, and how much French officials’ ideological blinders are shaping how they perceive the ideologies and functioning of these jihadist groups.

For another perspective, here it’s worth citing another Crisis Group report (.pdf, p. 1), this one on ISGS in the Tillabéri region of Niger:

In northern Tillabery, as elsewhere in the Sahel, an excessive focus on counterterrorism has however resulted in the overuse of military tools for a conflict that is fundamentally driven by inter- and intra-communal competition over rights and resources, which the Islamic State has exploited. Counter-terrorism strategies seeking to weaken jihadist groups are neither illegitimate nor unfounded, but the way they have been conducted in Niger has often enflamed the situations they seek to calm. These strategies have, for example, accelerated the militarisation of border communities and fuelled the stigmatisation of members of the Peul nomadic group, whom other local communities often regard as the Islamic State’s closest collaborators on the ground. They have also led to killings of civilians who are accused of being or are mistaken for Islamic State elements. As Niamey mounts a new counter-terrorism push in response to the surging violence along the border, local communities in northern Tillabery are already alleging that military operations have caused scores of civilian deaths.

Another strange thing about Carcy’s comments is that his framing concerning jihadist groups seems to shift from answer to answer. In the response I discussed above, JNIM is “identitarian” and ISGS is “millenarian”; in another response, without naming either group, Carcy says that the region’s jihadists were “identitarian” in 2014 when Barkhane began, but now Barkhane “must reduce a franchise that makes no demand, seeking simply to increase its zone of predation against a population already afflicted by poverty.” Which is it? And is it true that JNIM makes no coherent demands? I’m pretty sure it does – one of those demands, of course, is that France leave. Barkhane might not like that, but you can’t say it’s not clear.

Carcy, like other French officials, is also vague on another critical point – the “return of the state” and “development,” the third and fourth pillars of the Coalition for the Sahel and of the outcomes from France’s Pau summit back in January. On the one hand, it makes sense that a military commander would have more to say about the first two pillars of the Coalition, namely counterterrorism and military capacity. But Carcy’s comments toward the end of the interview, about Barkhane’s “support for political efforts for stabilization and development,” are thin. He concludes the interview by saying, “The objective is to prove to the population that there is an alternative to the terrorist system, which is a totalitarian model founded on terror.” And here we’re back to the same contradictions and outright incoherence – if jihadism offers an “identitarian model” that protects ways of life or offers protection and prospects to down-and-out youth, then how can it be a “totalitarian model founded on terror”?

I’m not sure that French officials really have a fleshed-out version of what “the return of the state” really means. Turning from military officials to the civilian side, French President Emmanuel Macron said the following at the Nouakchott summit:

Macron said that “it is the prefects, magistrates, police officers, and judges who will permit us to truly turn the situation around.”

This is slightly more detailed than what one hears from Barkhane commanders, of course, but it’s still basically a cliche, and one that gives no sense that France has a theory of change about how exactly these civilian authorities will “return” to the conflict zones. Moreover, French officials seem to not understand the fact that civilian authorities’ behavior (the “rackets” that Adam Thiam and others have written so carefully about) in certain zones – the behavior of those same prefects, magistrates, police officers, and judges – was a crucial factor in setting the stage for the present conflict.

Finally, Macron’s remarks about the “return of the state” are effectively undercut, I think, by rhetoric like this:

“We only have one enemy in the Sahel: Islamist terrorism.”

Rida Lyammouri responds better than I could:

And again, you see the problems not just with Macron’s remarks but with Carcy’s – what is France really doing in the Sahel? Fighting “totalitarianism” and “millenarianism,” in other words fanatics? Or trying to maneuver in an extraordinarily complicated political context where ordinary fighters have multi-faceted motivations for aligning themselves with various armed groups? The conceptual framework that Macron, Carcy, and others are using is both simplistic and self-contradictory, and one wonders how any effective policy can be founded upon such a framework.

Logistical Details and (Competing?) Accounts of the Droukdel Strike

On June 3, the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, was apparently killed in northern Mali. I have written here about his presumed death, and I gave some background on his career here. In this post I want to discuss some of the emerging conversation about how he was tracked and (again, presumably) killed.

The original announcement of Droukdel’s death, an announcement made on June 5, came from French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly, who said merely, “On June 3, the French Armed Forces, with the support of their partners, neutralized the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdal and many of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali.”

Press coverage of the operation placed the strike’s location at “the Ourdjane wadi (river bed), two kilometers south of the village of Talhandak, in the immense desert expanse of the great Malian north. Situated 80 kilometers east of Tessalit as the crow flies and 20 kilometers south of the Algerian border, the wadi was the site of ‘a meeting’ between leaders of AQIM, according to a local source interviewed by AFP.”

Details are emerging about the American role, which may have been substantial. In a June 8 statement, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said, “As a partner in this French-led mission, and as an example of our continued cooperation and partnership to counter a common threat, U.S. Africa Command provided intelligence and Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance support” for the operation.

The American role may have gone beyond intelligence and surveillance, however. Le Figaro‘s Georges Malbrunot, in a Twitter thread starting here, cites an anonymous diplomat without giving his/her nationality. According to this source, the U.S. identified Droukdel’s voice and located him when Droukdel placed a phone call, and then turned that information over to the French. According to the same source, an American drone fired the first shots at Droukdel’s convoy, lighting the way for French helicopters that then destroyed the convoy. French commandos then collected DNA samples, which were matched (in Paris) with DNA samples from Droukdel’s family collected by the Algerian authorities. (It’s kind of wild to me that Droukdel would talk on the phone – one would have assumed he would know better.)

Malbrunot refers to a convoy – but was there only one vehicle on the ground?

Malbrunot uses the first image as well; perhaps there was only one vehicle, or perhaps the vehicles in the convoy were spread out and the others are simply not visible in that first image. Another question I have is whether these images contradict the idea that the convoy was destroyed from the air.

The role of Algeria has also been a subject of intense discussion. Geoff Porter, who travels frequently to Algeria and has deep connections there, included in his analysis the following blunt sentences:

It is likely that Algeria always knew where Droukdel was and it is equally likely that Algeria allowed Droukdel to travel south from northeastern Algeria across the border into Mali. (This appears to be an extension of a strategy that Algeria embraced in the 2009-2011 timeframe – namely, solving Algeria’s terrorism problem by allowing terrorists to leave the country. You don’t have to quit jihad, but you can’t jihad here.) It was more convenient and more valuable for Algeria to allow France to eliminate Droukdel once he had quit Algerian territory: Algeria accrues ample diplomatic capital in Paris and Washington by delivering Droukdel, but it avoids both having to undertake the mission itself or permit a foreign military to operate within Algerian territory (VERBOTEN!) . It’s a win-win for Algiers: Droukdel is gone, Algerian sovereignty remains uncompromised, and Operation Barkhane and AFRICOM can chalk up an HVT [High Value Target] kill.

The paragraph is unsourced, or to put it differently, Porter is the source. I have long found his analysis extremely compelling and reliable, but obviously these are major claims and various major implications follow from them – your mileage may vary.

Relatedly, the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu offers a series of questions about Droukdel’s seeming ability to traverse Algerian territory, Algerian official silence on his death, and what this may reveal about other jihadists’ relationships with Algeria:

Algerian officials’ silence regarding Droukdel’s death rekindles questions about the protection enjoyed by the Malian Iyad ag Ghali, the Sahel’s most powerful jihadist, leader since 2017 of the coalition “Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims,” itself affiliated to al-Qaida. In a very well-document July 2018 investigation, Le Monde revealed that ag Ghali had sometimes sheltered in Algerian territory,  whether with his family in Tin Zaouatine, or in a hospital in Tamanrasset (where he had, for that matter, escaped a Western attempt at “neutralization”). Such facilities, which are necessarily impossible to admit, relate to a non-aggression pact and have effectively allowed for protecting the Algerian Sahara from jihadist attacks. More broadly, the Algerian authorities, who had failed in 2012 to sponsor an accord between ag Ghali and Bamako, are counting this time on a successful mediation in northern Mali, even if it means legitimizing the jihadist groups.

These, too, are very strong claims about Algeria’s role in all this. I have heard similar perspectives in Bamako, but verifying this is – at least for me – difficult. And the implications sort of boggle the mind, if you play it all out. If you start to assume that the Algerians protect ag Ghali and that France knows that and that France is pursuing a counterterrorism mission in northern Mali that is effectively bounded by rules set by Algeria, and and and…The train of thought can take you to some very dark places, actually, which is maybe why I personally don’t often follow it (or perhaps that’s a cop-out on my part).

Finally, it is striking, or perhaps not so striking, that the key actors discussed in the coverage are all non-Malian: that is, the Malian state appears to have played no appreciable role in the strike, and neither did the vaunted G5 Sahel Joint Force. I have not even read any references so far as to whether the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), the de facto authority in the Kidal Region (where the strike occurred) had any role whatsoever in the raid. When the chips are down and a “high value target” is at stake, it appears clear that Paris (and Washington) regard Bamako as a junior partner.

France’s Coalition for the Sahel Gets Going

On January 13 of this year, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Sahelian heads of state for a summit in Pau, France. Among the outcomes of the summit was the announcement of a new “Coalition for the Sahel,” which will focus on four “pillars”: counterterrorism, military capacity-building, supporting the return of the state, and development. The Coalition is meant to coordinate existing activities, with France and the G5 Sahel as it primary members. A major question is whether the Coalition is merely a rebranding of pre-existing elements, or whether it will represent something genuinely new.

On June 12, the Coalition for the Sahel held its first (virtual) meeting. This ministerial-level meeting was hosted jointly by Mauritanian Foreign Affairs Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (Mauritania holds the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel for 2020), European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell Fontelles, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The “informal conclusions” can be found here (English) and here (French). My read is that the meeting was mostly a stock-taking, a review of initiatives currently underway such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force, France’s Sahel Alliance, France’s Takuba Task Force, etc. You can read a French government English-language explainer on the G5 Sahel and the Sahel Alliance here, and an Al Jazeera report on the Takuba Task Force here.

My usage of “France’s this” and “France’s that” could be debated, but I do it deliberately. The rhetoric of “coalition” and “alliance” is deliberate on France’s part, meant to imply a collective stake in the Sahel crisis, but to me the vibe is one of top-down French influence, and I can’t tell what level of buy-in there is from Sahelian heads of state. Notably, for example, I could not find mention of the Coalition in the final communiqué from the last G5 Sahel summit, held in Nouakchott in February. And here is Reuters, also describing France as the driving force and discussing the Coalition in terms of French government goals:

France launched a coalition of West African and European allies on Friday to fight jihadi militants in the Sahel region, hoping more political cooperation and special forces would boost a military effort that has so far failed to stifle violence.

I don’t think that’s going to pan out. The different components of the Coalition have already been struggling to reverse some of the worst trends in the Sahel, and I don’t think coordination is the most important missing element. The criticism leveled at the French government after the Pau summit, namely that France lacks a genuine political strategy, still holds. And the Pau summit may have even inadvertently upped the pressure for Sahelian soldiers to commit abuses against civilians, abuses that are themselves a key driver of insurgency.

In any event, the Coalition’s official description can be found here, along with various resources. France’s Envoy for the Sahel, Christophe Bigot, is on Twitter here, as is the Coalition itself.

In terms of what comes next, I’m not sure – readers may know. The next G5 Sahel summit is scheduled for February 2021 in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, but I suspect we will hear from the Coalition before then.

War on the Rocks Piece About France, Mali, and JNIM

I have a piece at War on the Rocks today arguing that France should reduce counterterrorism operations and manhunts in Mali in order to give more space to a potential dialogue between the Malian government and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). As always, readers’ comments would be welcome.

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.

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.