x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

France, UK appear headed for about-face on campaigns in Africa

With no real threat to their home populations, it is clear that the capacity for sustained military involvement is sharply limited. Omar Karmi reports from London

Fighters with the Al Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine stand guard in Timbuktu last year. AP Photo
Fighters with the Al Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine stand guard in Timbuktu last year. AP Photo

LONDON // Not long after France sent soldiers to Mali to prevent what was becoming a militant Islamist rout of that country's forces, the talk in London was of a "new front in the war on terror" in North Africa, led by the United Kingdom and Europe taking the place of an increasingly hesitant United States.

But a month later, such talk seems like so much political posturing and wishful thinking.

As John Kerry, the new US secretary of state, holds talks with Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, on the first stop of a nine-day trip through Europe and the Middle East, it is clear that the capacity for sustained military involvement by the United Kingdom and France is sharply limited, not least because the public's perception of the threat posed by recent events in North Africa is not dire enough to sustain such engagement.

The predictions were very different at the end of January when Mr Cameron made the first visit by a British prime minister to post-independence Algeria, promising to improve security coordination in the wake of the deadly attack by gunmen on the Ain Aminas oil and gas field where hundreds of hostages were taken by an Islamist gang claiming affiliation with Al Qaeda.

Mr Cameron even offered to send British troops to work with Algerian forces in counter-terrorism operations.

There was no response from Algiers. Indeed, Algeria's leadership, which dealt immediately and ruthlessly with the Aminas attack in spite of British and other countries' concerns, might have felt slightly bemused at such an offer, said George Joffe, a professor of international relations at the University of Cambridge and a North Africa specialist.

"Cameron made a big play of it, but actually the Algerians listened politely and ignored him," said Mr Joffe, who suggested remarks by Mr Cameron urging caution during the hostage crisis had annoyed Algeria's leadership.

Mali, meanwhile, proved an unexpectedly rapid success for France, which plans to pull out of its operations there in the coming weeks as the threat from Islamist fighters in the north subsides.

Mali, for Paris and its policy of "Francafrique", was about putting out a fire in the "backyard", said Richard Cochrane, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with IHS Jane's, a London-based group of publications focused on military and intelligence affairs.

Anything more than a flare-up, however, and France might struggle in part because successive governments have cut back on the military budget. French troops remain in the country and fighting continues, if sporadically. With Mali's own forces in disarray, and the country's governance unstable after effectively two military coups in a year, fears have not abated that France could become bogged down in the long term.

"As powerful as they are, the UK and French militaries don't come anywhere near the US ability to project power. You really need the US to be aboard for any sustained operation, even in France's backyard", Mr Cochrane said.

The United States is providing C-17 transport planes and in-air refuelling , as well as help with intelligence gathering, but has ruled out sending troops to Mali. Mr Cochrane expects the US involvement will increasingly move to an intelligence-gathering capacity as it seeks to secure rights for its drones to fly over Mali.

A US state department official briefing reporters on Sunday, as Mr Kerry left the US, suggested that Mali was an example of how the European Union and US could work together.

"Sometimes we're in the lead, sometimes Europeans are in the lead, but because we have common interests, we have an interest in doing it together," the official said.

But with the US reallocating assets to East Asia to counter the rise of China as a regional military power, Washington increasingly wants European countries to take the lead in North Africa, Mr Joffe said.

The West's intervention in Libya in 2011 was being seen as a model for future interventions in regions where Europe had a greater stake, while an "America in recline" - as described in a recent article in the US magazine Foreigh Policy - seeks to avoid imperial overreach.

The Libya intervention also "whetted" Britain's and France's appetite for flexing their military muscle in the region, said Mr Joffe, who described Mali as a "second attempt". But threats from Islamist groups are "just an excuse to harden and securitise the relationship between Europe and North Africa," he said.

"There is no threat to Europe [from North Africa]. There never was, there never will be," Mr Joffe said. "That's not to say there isn't a jihadi threat, but if there is, it's from inside Europe. And these groups don't have significant links inside Europe."