Takuba: A new coalition for the Sahel?
France and its European partners launched a new counter-terrorism task force, Takuba. Will the military task force make a change amid a faltering security strategy in Africa’s Sahel region?
On 12 June 2020, France and the G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) formed the ‘International Coalition for the Sahel’, first announced at the January 2020 Pau Summit.
The new framework is supposed to encompass all international security and development initiatives in the region. The coalition is based on four pillars: the fight against terrorism, capacity-building for Sahelien forces, restoration of state authority and development assistance.
Amid a deteriorating security situation, Sahelien countries, especially Niger, called for more involvement of the international community.1 Leaders at the Pau Summit branded the fight against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in the Liptako-Gourma region – the tri-border area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso – priority number one, with a new force to tackle it: Task Force Takuba.
Unlike United Nations and European Union missions in the Sahel, Takuba is not mandated by an international organisation
Takuba – meaning ‘sabre’ in Tuareg – is a task force composed of European special forces. It is scheduled to deploy in July 2020 with full operational capacity by early 2021, and a mandate of three years. However, the task force is facing delays, with only France and Estonia deploying this summer, and Swedish and Czech troops – pending parliamentary approval – set to join in 2021.
France will provide 300 special forces members, with Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden bringing the total to 600.2 Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom politically support the initiative but have not committed troops.
Unlike United Nations and European Union missions in the Sahel, Takuba is not mandated by an international organisation. Rather, Takuba will be part of Operation Barkhane, under the French command.
What is its goal?
The objective of Operation Barkhane in 2020, according to a member of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces, is to destroy ISGS’s military capacity through sustained counter-terrorism operations in the Liptako region alongside the Sahelian militaries. If successful, the Takuba Task Force would allow the rest of Operation Barkhane to focus elsewhere, potentially in the nearby Gourma region.3
Takuba will operate from three military bases of the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa), located in Gao, Ansongo and Ménaka. In Takuba’s so-called 3A-strategy – ‘Accompany, Advise, Assist’ – European special forces are deployed to conduct joint combat operations with the FAMa against ISGS, with the objective of “bringing the FAMa towards operational autonomy in a pacified area”.
The details of how the command will be structured and the division of the tasks within the force are still under review
In addition to the 3A-strategy, interested European partners will conduct direct counter-terrorism operations and reconnaissance missions under French command. The details of how the command will be structured and the division of the tasks within the force are still under review. According to a Swedish intelligence officer, the command structure will likely take on one of two forms: ’the EU model’ or ‘the Afghan model’.
In the EU model, officers from various troop-contributing countries (TCCs) would serve in different posts under one command. In the Afghan model, each TCC would undertake a specific task according to its expertise and limits of engagement. This would allow the French to take on active combat roles, while nations with smaller militaries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, focus on training initiatives.
What gap do European partners aim to fill with Takuba?
As the security situation in Mali and the wider Sahel region deteriorates, French forces have been confronted with a stalemate in their counter-terrorism focussed approach.4 A wave of anti-French protests has questioned France’s legitimacy in the region.
Domestic discontent is also rising in France, following a helicopter crash in November 2019 that killed 13 French troops
Nearly 80 percent of the respondents in a recent Malian survey indicated little trust in Operation Barkhane, referring to perceived complicity with armed groups and the inability to protect populations.5 Domestic discontent is also rising in France, following a helicopter crash in November 2019 that killed 13 French troops.
In this charged context, French officials in the Sahel Coalition secretariat emphasize that Takuba is not ‘yet another initiative’, but an important component of reshaping a faltering security strategy and rebuilding trust through two adjustments.
Objective 1: Counter-terrorism
Despite numerous regional and international actors operating in the Sahel, militants have proliferated and expanded their reach throughout the region.
Operation Barkhane already conducts joint operations with the national armies of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, as well as with the G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S), which combines more than 5,000 military troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. France is also urging Chad to honour its commitments made at Pau and deploy a battalion to the Liptako region.
Between May 2017 and the end 2018, France had already focused operations in the Liptako region on driving out ISGS before reinstalling FAMa troops in French-built garrisons. The strategy, however, did not bring the expected results.
Task Force Takuba presents a two-fold modification of the existing counter-terrorism approach
ISGS became only momentarily disorganised before adapting: re-organising chains of command, recruiting in new communities and developing new methods of action such as increasing the use of IEDs.6 In the second half of 2019, the Malian Armed Forces faced a series of deadly attacks that opened ISGS’s path to Niger.
Task Force Takuba presents a two-fold modification of the existing counter-terrorism approach. First, it complements conventional army missions through smaller special operations, which are more mobile and targeted.
Second, Takuba aims to fill capacity gaps of the FAMa through joint operations. This furthers the logic that the withdrawal of foreign forces can only be envisaged once national militaries can hold the territory.
Objective 2: Training and capacity-building
French officials referred to a lack of training of – and also a lack of confidence in – Malian soldiers deployed in the Liptako region as a reason for the area’s continued instability.
Since 2013, the EU Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) – which consists of 700 soldiers from 28 European countries – has trained more than 14,000 troops7 and served as the most sustained capacity-building effort for the Malian Armed Forces to date. In addition to its counter-terrorism objectives, Takuba responds to France’s frustrations with the EUTM’s lack of results in improving the Malian army’s capabilities to secure their own territory.
According to the French Chief of Defence Staff General François Lecointre, the distance between the EUTM’s training centre from actual combat zones limits its effectiveness, as well as a lack of joint EU-FAMa exercises, active mentoring of the FAMa in combat operations, and executive monitoring of the EUTM trained soldiers.8
It remains unclear how lessons learned from Takuba’s executive mentoring operations can be integrated to adapt trainings of the EUTM
The EU’s recent extension of the EUTM’s mandate until 2024 has addressed some of these points by expanding its scope and increasing its budget.9 The new mandate extends the area of Malian operations to the north – closer to combat zones – and includes a component for Burkina Faso, and ultimately, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.
The EUTM will still not accompany the FAMa in active combat, so the initiative remains too detached to provide meaningful executive mentoring or evaluate the training impact. It remains unclear how lessons learned from Takuba’s executive mentoring operations can be integrated to adapt trainings of the EUTM.10
What are Takuba’s main strengths and limitations?
Through Takuba, France anticipates an improved effectiveness in combating ISGS while bolstering France’s reputation in the region. Takuba serves an important political role for France.
If successful, the task force furthers the interest of France to show results to local and international partners; to rebuild trust with Mali and to maintain a committed counter-terrorism presence in the Sahel as the United States mulls over withdrawing large-scale support across the African continent.
French sources stressed the importance of European partners in countering jihadist groups in the region through joint initiatives. Takuba allows France to reduce resource burdens while remaining at the helm of Sahelian security operations.
The prioritisation of a militarised approach over one addressing the governance grievances at the root of conflict points to the critical limitations addressing the conflict in the Sahel region
At present, only 300 European special forces will join the French troops for Takuba, but the EU is seeking an increased role in the Sahel Coalition by taking over leadership of the P3S, now incorporated in the Coalition’s capacity-building pillar.11
The prioritisation of a militarised approach over one addressing the governance grievances at the root of conflict – a strategy underpinning Takuba and broader international involvement in the region – points to the critical limitations addressing the conflict in the Sahel region.
The state administrations participating in the Sahel Coalition must still work out how the Coalition’s four pillars can most effectively complement each other, how the plethora of initiatives can be coordinated and how the coalition will facilitate essential security and humanitarian assistance, without undermining the legitimacy of Sahelian states.12
The limits of militarisation and focus on ISGS
Takuba’s approach furthers international priorities that often do not reflect local priorities, which rather place impetus on food security and employment than on terrorism. In fact, militarisation can further harm these livelihoods by restricting freedom of movement for economic activities and delegitimising the state as a service provider.13 While Takuba might reduce attacks from ISGS in the Liptako region momentarily, this does not guarantee stability and vitality for the populations.
Even if deemed the biggest priority for the international community, ISGS is not the greatest threat to local populations – and not even the deadliest jihadist group. Amongst attacks carried out by radical groups, the al-Qaeda affiliate JNIM14 has made critical strikes against the FAMa in the Gourma region and further into Central Mali, where they proved tactical in playing off local grievances and pre-existing inter-communal tensions.15
The attention to counter-terror operations might detract from protecting civilians from a myriad of insurgent and criminal actors
Highlighting the limitations of a military focused counter-terrorism approach, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita indicated an interest in opening negotiations with the JNIM in February 2020.16
International attention, the restructuring of societal hierarchies and norms, and the failure of state forces to provide security have prompted a proliferation of the armed actors and militias in Mali. The attention to counter-terror operations might detract from protecting civilians from a myriad of insurgent and criminal actors, for example, by diverting international air assets vital to protecting civilians in other parts of Mali to the Liptako region.17
Takuba attempts to walk a line between a French-led counter-terrorism operation and a multilateral training mission by including other European countries but maintaining a national command. It aims to achieve both swift deployment and a broader European buy-in.
By eschewing an EU mandate, Takuba evades the lengthy planning logic of EU CSDP missions
As a coalition of the willing under French command, Takuba provides a channel that could also include non-EU members such as the UK and Norway. By eschewing an EU mandate, Takuba evades the lengthy planning logic of EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions.
If an official EU force, Takuba operations would be subject to EU rules and protocols. Each operation would need to invite all EU member states to participate, whether or not suited to the tasks. From a French perspective, this could undermine the timeline and effectiveness of the initiative, perceived in Paris as urgent.
Transparency and accountability issues
The threat Sahelian militaries themselves pose to populations underscores a potential limitation of Takuba’s approach. Takuba aims to bolster the capacities of the Malian army, and therefore confronts accountability issues associated with these forces.
In fact, the number of human rights violations committed by the Malian Armed Forces outnumbered those by radical armed groups in the first quarter of 2020.18 The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) shows an increase of incidents resulting in civilian fatalities by state forces in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since the Pau Summit.19
ACLED’s analysis cites a demand for counterinsurgency results, poor training and equipment and re-assignments of troops in border regions as potential contributing factors to hostile actions from local military units against civilians.
Increased effectiveness of national armed forces will not improve civilian security unless armed forces stop committing human rights abuses and atrocities
While cases of human rights violations among these forces are not new, the number of civilian fatalities by state security forces peaked at nearly 250 in February 2020, roughly ten times the monthly average of the last six months of 2019.
This illustrates that increased effectiveness of national armed forces will not improve civilian security unless armed forces stop committing human rights abuses and atrocities. This is also a key condition for improving security in the longer term as atrocities committed by state forces are shown to increase pre-existing grievances and drive recruitment to extremist groups.20
Any efforts to increase the effectiveness of counter-terrorism operations therefore need to be accompanied by a coordinated effort of international partners to condemn violence by state security forces in the name of counter-terrorism. In addition, France and Mali’s international partners should put consistent pressure on the national authorities to achieve accountability for the committed atrocities.
The way forward
Takuba’s success will hinge on accountability, transparency, good governance and information sharing among other actors in the region. Beyond the goals to reduce the presence of ISGS in the Liptako region, Takuba must plan to transit the ownership of security in the region to the Malian government.
Therefore, capacity-building of the Malian forces and increased accountability will be vital to Takuba’s impact on the broader mandate of Operation Barkhane to restore territorial integrity, authority and trust of the Malian state.
Military officers and policy makers in the Liptako region should take into account lessons learned from previous reform initiatives in the security sector and optimise information sharing among concurrent capacity-building and counter-terrorism operations.
- 1See the Opening speech by the President of Niger Issoufou Mahamadou at a special G5 Sahel summit, 15 December 2019.
- 2Latest developments point to Greece joining as an additional troop-contributing country to Takuba. See: Forces Operations Blog, ’Greece to join TF Takuba’, 14 June 2020.
- 3Whereas Liptako-Gourma comprises the tri-border region between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, Liptako is the Mali-Niger border area, and Gourma the Mali-Burkina Faso border area.
- 4UN News, ‘Unprecedented terrorist violence’ in West Africa, Sahel region', 8 January 2020.
- 5Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), 'Mali Mètre’, March 2020.
- 6IEDs are Improvised Explosive Devices. See: International Crisis Group, ´Sidelining the Islamic State in Niger’s Tillabery’, 3 June 2020.
- 7This number is nearly equivalent to the total of Malian military personnel. See: IRSEM, 'The European Union training mission and the struggle for a new model army in Mali', 11 February 2020.
- 8Lecointre explained how the initial intention to switch the focus of Operation Barkhane from the Liptako to the Gourma was not possible given the insufficiency of the FAMa. See: The Defense Post, 'Sahel: France to further strengthen Barkhane, Takuba "fully operational by autumn"', 22 January 2020.
- 9European Council Press Release, 'EUTM Mali: Council extends training mission with broadened mandate and increased budget', 23 March 2020.
- 10Executive mentoring is the term describing joint deployment in the field whereby European TCCs will have the right to deploy in active fighting zones, and the use of force is not restricted to defence purposes. It constitutes a more robust and high-risk form of mentoring than currently deployed in the realm of the EUTM, which does not deploy in active combat zones.
- 11P3S is the Partnership for Security and Stability that was launched by Germany and France in August 2019 in an attempt to increase capacity-building efforts in the Sahel. See: German Federal Foreign Office, ´Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on MINUSMA in the UN Security Council’, 11 June 2020.
- 12In June 2019, there were 112 humanitarian organisations operating in Mali, including 49 national NGOs, 48 international NGOs, 8 UN organisations, 4 International Red Cross movements and only 3 governmental organisations. See: SIPRI, 'Mali: Fragmented territorial sovereignty and contested political space', 16 June 2020.
- 13SIPRI, 'State Services in an Insecure Environment: Perceptions among Civil Society in Mali', December 2018.
- 14JNIM is the Arabic acronym of the Group to Support Muslims and Islam, led by Iyad Ag Ghali.
- 15SIPRI, 'The Impact of Armed Groups on the Populations of Central and Northern Mali', October 2019.
- 16Jeune Afrique, 'Au Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta prêt au dialogue avec les jihadistes, au risque de négocier avec le diable', 25 February 2020.
- 17Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), 'Protecting Civilians in Mali: Why Air Assets Matter for MINUSMA', 6 May 2020.
- 18MINUSMA, 'Note sur les tendances des violations et abus de droits de l’homme 1er Janvier - 31 Mars 2020', April 2020.
- 19ACLED, 'State atrocities in the Sahel: the impetus for counterinsurgency results is fuelling government attacks on civilians', 20 May 2020.
- 20United Nations Development Programme, 'Journey to extremism in Africa', 2017.
Big missing piece to the plan
In assessing the terrorist challenge in the Sahel and the new French-led task force’s plan to address it, “Takuba: A new coalition for the Sahel?” is good as far as it goes. Similarly, the four pillars of the plan (i.e. the fight against terrorism, capacity-building for Sahelien forces, restoration of state authority, and development assistance) are all necessary for success. The article also makes important points about the danger of an over-reliance on military solutions, the downsides of capacity-building, and the importance of avoiding human rights violations and civilian casualties.
The big missing piece to the plan, and ultimately the obstacle to its strategic success, is the lack of a counter-ideology component. Indeed, such a component needs to be central, because the Islamist ideology is the enemy's center of gravity. In other words, the strategic objective should be to prevail in the ideological battle and, to that end, the plan needs a counter-ideology pillar, which is preeminent and to which efforts under the other four pillars are subsumed and aligned.
Over the years, there has been much discussion about the root causes of terrorism. For example, the article refers to "the governance grievances at the root of conflict." Sociological, economic, psychological and educational factors have also been cited as examples. While these factors are certainly relevant to the problem and we must make an effort to address them (e.g. with governmental reforms, development assistance or community-level outreach), characterizing them as root causes is off the mark and so, unfortunately, has distracted -- and continues to distract -- from the actual root cause: the Islamist ideology.
While the aforementioned "causes" exist all over the world, extremism, much less terrorism, does not always follow from them. When does it? When religious and terrorist propagandists and leaders skillfully leverage Islamist ideology to assign blame for the conditions which result in said grievances and thereby rationalize a call to action that, per the ideology, Allah himself demands. While the so-called root causes might be a factor in any given instance, they are not always. Conversely, the Islamist ideology is always a motivating factor -- if not the motivating factor -- and, ultimately, the one that propels action.
If the French-led task force strikes a constructive balance among the four pillars, effects good coordination among them, and executes its missions effectively, the current plan might succeed in denigrating terrorist networks and disrupting their ability to conduct attacks. Unfortunately, as we have seen time and time again, any such tactical and operational successes will be temporary, if the Islamist ideology persists undiminished. As long as it does, the enemy will be able to both recruit new adherents to replace losses, and reconstitute and resurge whenever given time and space to do so.
In this manner, the conflict with Islamist terrorism will go on forever unless we either capitulate, which is not really an option, or win the strategic ideological battle. Until we engage in that battle, strategically speaking, we will continue to be on the defensive and cede the initiative to the enemy. The wide array of tactical and operational measures we employ offensively to denigrate terrorist networks and disrupt their ability to attack us, while often successful, are not sustainable over the long term, as they come at tremendous cost in blood and treasure as well as opportunity cost. As a result, starting now (only because we have not started before), we must use the time those measures buy us to engage in the strategic ideological battle in earnest, both locally (e.g. in the Sahel) and globally, and thereby go on the strategic offensive."
About the author:
Rick Hotchner served for 28 years as a case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency's Directorate of Operations, retiring in 2018 as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. He had six field tours and several senior Headquarters assignments, the last of which was Deputy Chief of Operations in the CounterTerrorism Mission Center. Now a leadership/management and security consultant, he is engaged in a range of paid and pro bono projects.