The Sahel is an area “of strategic interest” for NATO and terrorism, the “most direct asymmetric threat” for its citizens, according to the Strategic Concept approved at the Madrid summit. However, the situation on the southern flank continues to deteriorate without the Allied leaders feeling compelled to take measures to stop it. While Western countries reinforce their military deployment in Russia’s neighborhood, seeking to dissuade Moscow from continuing its expansionist adventure, the European military mission in Mali, the heart of the region that has become the global epicenter of jihadism, is rapidly dissolving.
At the beginning of this month, the new relief of the Spanish contingent of the EUTM Mali, the European training mission of the Malian Army, arrived in the sub-Saharan country, but it was no longer made up of almost 600 soldiers, as until now, but by about 400. A drastic one-third reduction. In the coming months, the Ministry of Defense plans to leave it in half, about 200 troops, with a merely testimonial role. Germany, which had another 600 soldiers in the European mission, has left them in the middle: 300. But it has announced that they will no longer be stationed in Mali, but in neighboring Niger, where the German military has had Operation Gezelle since 2017, in merger process with the EUTM.
Without Germans and almost without Spaniards, its two largest contributors, the European mission cannot survive, at least in Mali, even if it is up to the high representative of the EU, Josep Borrell, to make a proposal about its future. In fact, for months the European military has not fulfilled the function for which they are there: instructing Malian soldiers to fight terrorism. They have no guarantee that the soldiers they train will not end up fighting arm in arm with their Russian colleagues, who do not respect the most elementary norms of international humanitarian law and have been accused of carrying out summary executions of civilians.
The first to leave were the French: the 5,500 soldiers from Operation Barkhane and the task force Takuba are about to complete their withdrawal from Mali, after the Bamako-based coup military junta reneged on its promise to hold democratic elections in the country. The departure of the French troops has deprived the cushion of protection that EUTM Mali had, but which also benefited the UN mission Minusma, with 15,000 blue helmets. For now, Germany has had to increase its presence in the UN force to compensate for the loss of support from France, but the German government is also considering withdrawing after the summer of Minusma, according to diplomatic sources.
Allied media estimate that there are some 2,000 Russians in Mali —among soldiers and mercenaries from the Wagner security company, close to the Kremlin—, although the rate of landing of uniformed personnel seems to have slowed down in recent months due to Moscow’s need to concentrate forces in Ukraine; which shows, according to the same sources, that the eastern and southern flanks function as communicating vessels.
NATO already has it theorized. The Madrid Strategic Concept mentions the “destabilizing and coercive interference” exerted in Africa by its “strategic competitors”, alluding to Moscow and Beijing. But he has not drawn the consequences on the ground. China has a military base in Djibouti and Russia has negotiated the construction of another in Sudan. On this side of the African continent, Russia has soldiers in the Central African Republic and Mali, while courting the Military Junta of Burkina Faso. And China is seeking to install its second African base in the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea, according to allied military intelligence sources.
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In the face of these advances, cooperation with the southern neighborhood of the NATO summit in Madrid yields poor results. A first military support package for Mauritania has been approved (made up of capabilities for special operations, maritime security and intelligence, with which to deal with irregular immigration and terrorism) and an expansion of the cooperation already underway with Tunisia. Only two foreign ministers from the southern neighborhood have come to the Spanish capital, those from Jordan and Mauritania.
Spanish diplomatic sources argue that NATO’s attention to the southern flank is recent, although not so recent: the Mediterranean Dialogue was launched 28 years ago, in 1994; but the situation since then has worsened and today it would not be possible to gather all its members (Israel, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Mauritania and Tunisia). The deterioration of security on the southern flank is slower and quieter, but no less lethal than in the East. In a decade, the war in Mali has already left more than 25,000 dead and four million displaced.
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