By Aaron Ross, Reuters/Sevare, Mali
Snipers from a new West African force lie prone on a rooftop in central Mali, scanning the horizon for militants who have infiltrated this sparsely populated region south of the Sahara and made it a launchpad for deadly attacks.
Thousands of UN peacekeepers, French troops and US military trainers and drone operators have failed to stem a growing wave of militant violence, leading international powers to pin their hopes on a new regional force.
But the so-called G5 Sahel initiative faces immense challenges if it is to do any better at bringing security to the arid Sahel region than its countries Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger have managed so far.
Security sources and analysts say too strong an emphasis on military might over tackling the underlying causes of strife, logistical shortfalls and a lack of co-operation from regional powerhouse Algeria all raise doubts over whether the G5 can succeed where years of Western intervention has not.
“There is a long way to go to reach full operational capacity, even though the timeframe is relatively short,” G5 force commander General Didier Dacko told visiting UN Security Council envoys last month, citing a range of needs from aerial support to communications equipment to intelligence gathering.
The United Nations, France and the United States have poured billions of dollars into stabilising the region over the past 15 years but have failed to meaningfully address the many local grievances driving conflict, analysts say.
Political and social tensions, such as a stalled peace process between the government and armed groups in Mali, are pushing youths to militancy, as are growing rivalries between farmers and cattle herders and rights abuses by national armies.
In northern Burkina Faso, for example, preacher Malam Ibrahim Dicko has gained adherents to his militant Ansarul Islam movement by railing against the privileges of traditional elites in a region scarred by widespread poverty.
Some local groups have affiliated themselves with global franchises such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, whose dwindling presence in the Middle East has led Western governments to zero in on the vast lawless tracts of North and West Africa to prevent them finding new footholds.
But the militant groups in the Sahel draw more on frustrations with central governments and the Western forces that back them than a global militant agenda, making security-heavy approaches risky, analysts say.
“I think local communities in Mali and Niger feel alienated and confused by the actions of those entities,” said Alexander Thurston, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who specialises in Islam and politics in West Africa.
“The problems require political solutions, ultimately, and the G5 is a small and underfunded force.”
The G5’s backers say they recognise the need for longer-term economic development, not just a beefed-up security presence. In Mali last month, France’s UN envoy Francois Delattre called the two “absolutely inseparable”. But when it comes to coughing up, development often gets short-changed.
Initially sceptical of the force, the United States pledged up to $60mn last week.
Even so, commitments from the G5 countries and donors stand at only a third of the estimated $490mn the force needs in its first year.
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