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Security Force Assistance under Geopolitical Stress: The EU’s “Strategic Review” of its CSDP Missions in Mali

spotlight 2022 09, 20.06.2022

The EU is reluctant to face the uncomfortable truth that its CSDP missions in Mali, especially EUTM, have failed to make a lasting impact. Its recent Strategic Review puts the blame on geopolitical competition with Russia rather than self-introspection. In this Megatrends Afrika Spotlight, Denis Tull (SWP) argues that the EU should take stock of its security force assistance before expanding its activities to Mali’s neighbouring countries.

Last month, the European External Action Service (EEAS) submitted a report to European Union (EU) member states, assessing the security force assistance (SFA) of its two Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions in Mali, EUTM and EUCAP Sahel Mali. The "Holistic Strategic Review of EUTM Mali and EUCAP Sahel Mali" provides a glimpse into current thinking in Brussels on how, where, and under what conditions the EU’s CSDP should stay engaged in the Sahel. Unfortunately, the Review tends to look at SFA primarily through the prism of geostrategic competition from Russia. There is little indication that the EU is waking up to the possibility that its own offer of SFA is ineffective or ill-adapted to the needs of partners.

All eyes on geopolitics

The lens of geostrategic competition is not unexpected. In Mali, the deployment of an estimated 1,000 “Russia-affiliated forces” (aka the Wagner Group) has intensified, though not caused, fault lines in the relationship between Mali and its European partners, France in particular. As a consequence, the EU faces a dilemma: It wants to stay engaged with an utterly recalcitrant Malian government that has chosen Russia instead as its strategic partner, while simultaneously countering Moscow’s rising influence in spite of reputational risks and exceedingly limited leverage.

The EU does not want to be squeezed out by Russian proxies, as was arguably the case in the Central African Republic, but its options are limited. Perhaps predictably, the EEAS recommends maintaining the presence of the EU Training Mission (EUTM) through “structural” advisory activities as well as non-operational support for military training facilities. However, the suspension of operational training activities since April 2022 is to be extended to all areas, except human rights and International Humanitarian Law.

Why Bamako should concede to this is unclear. Even the possibility of EUTM’s expulsion from Mali cannot be excluded. At best, Brussels hopes a symbolic EUTM presence may enable it to further monitor the situation in the country, as it aspires to resume full cooperation once conditions have improved – that is, Wagner withdraws.

Given its considerable focus on the present political and geopolitical context in Mali – a Russia-allied military junta prone to attack Western partners – the EU remains relatively complacent regarding its own limitations. Readers may be tempted to believe that the unsatisfactory outcomes of the mission are mainly a function of the current political predicament.

Shying away from self-introspection

This is not to say that the state of Mali’s defence and security should be attributed only to past CSDP failings. But after close to nine years in the country, taking some degree of responsibility would seem appropriate.

Indeed, the picture that the Review paints of the Malian army is a rather bleak one. It points to human rights violations and impunity, structural deficiencies, weak logistics, a lack of resources, poor leadership, an almost absent operational cycle, weak control-and-command, as well as overall limited military and organisational improvements. EUTM has sought to address them since 2013, with limited success.

Not novel either is the “militarisation” of internal security forces (National Guard and gendarmerie). It may have accelerated since the coup, but the National Guard in particular has gained military and political clout over a much longer period.

Criticism for a lack of combined training and equipment packages

Some well-known problems are acknowledged on the EU’s side, such as a lack of monitoring and follow-up of training activities; a lack of staff, especially French-speaking advisors; self-imposed restrictions and national caveats due to risk aversion; too frequent rotations of personnel, etc.

Perhaps the shortcoming that is outlined most insistently is the lack of combined training and equipment packages, attributed to a “lack of instruments” to enable the EU to provide weapons and ammunitions to the Malian army. This has had the effect of both undermining the operational impact of EU training and tarnishing the political credibility of the EU in the eyes of Malian partners.

This is an old debate, but it has been put into stark relief by the emergence of strategic competitors less concerned with human rights. The European Peace Facility (EPF), established in 2021, may be the missing tool in the box: Still, it will hardly do away with another set of problems, that is, the political risks of equipping weakly institutionalised, unaccountable armed forces.

Still tagging along with France and currently on the move to Niger

Beyond a wait-and-see approach in Mali (“strategic patience”), the Review aims to salvage the relevancy of CSDP activities in the Sahel by redirecting CSDP activities to neighbouring countries. In so doing, it follows for all intents and purposes France’s policies and military adaptations, away from Mali into neighbouring countries, with Niger as the centre of gravity.

The EU seems intent to establish a CSDP presence in Niger, whose government has shown a strong interest for French military combat support as well as European SFA. Consequently, the EU is preparing a full support package in terms of financial resources, equipment, training, advice, and possibly accompaniment. The creation of a dedicated Task Force to train and accompany Nigerien forces to combat – likely modelled on the French-led Task Force Takuba previously deployed to Mali – is also on the table.

Incidentally, there is an interesting EU-internal dimension to this idea. The Review suggests that such an (executive) operation may be deployed under Article 44 of the EU Treaty. It would be the first time for the Council of the EU to activate that article to “entrust the implementation of a task to a group of Member States” – that is, de facto a coalition of the willing, albeit under the EU umbrella.

Boldly going to Burkina Faso?

The EU is also toying with the idea of CSDP activities in Burkina Faso, though the political conditions for such an undertaking are not met, given military rule in that country since January 2022. However, Brussels may be tempted to show some flexibility. The EU dreads “a replication of the Malian model”, where a military government desperate for outside support has embraced Russia at the expense of Europeans. Therefore, it is argued that a European offer of support “should be ambitious and bold enough to convince Burkinabe to renounce to [sic] other partnerships”.

However, it is doubtful whether such binary thinking is conducive to help putting “the right political conditions” in place, that is, presumably a return to constitutional order. Finally, the Review also floats the idea of a CSDP engagement with countries in the Gulf of Guinea. This assistance could take the form of capacity-building in the coastal states, with a focus on intelligence capabilities. It aims to slow the spill-over of jihadist activity.

After almost nine years of SFA to Mali, CSDP missions have, by the EU’s own admission, made “limited progress […] towards the desired final state”. It seems striking, then, that decision-makers in Brussels show considerable eagerness to expand CSDP activities in the guise of SFA to Mali’s neighbouring countries. While it is obvious that geostrategic competition has become the primary driver behind these intentions, little suggests that the EU has taken sufficient stock to assess the causes of its own (in)effectiveness and poor results – a prerequisite to deliver better in the future.