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Sahel/US: ’We do not want to work with military forces that have committed human rights abuses’

By Achraf Tijani
Posted on Wednesday, 16 June 2021 17:50

Andrew Young ©AFRICOM

The Sahel is once again under a spotlight following rising Islamist attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali's political instability following two coups, France suspending joint military cooperation with Mali, and the questionable strength of the G5 task force following the death of Chad's President Idriss Déby. Where does the US stand on these issues? Andrew Young, deputy leader of the United States Africa Command, talks with us about the future of Washington's engagement in the region.

Andrew Young has been serving as deputy to the commander for civil-military engagement at the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) since July 2020. The combatant command is  responsible for coordinating all military and security activities of the United States with African countries. As former US ambassador to Burkina Faso, Young is well acquainted with the Sahel.

In the following interview, he emphasises the need to support democratic transitions in the region – a far from trivial point in light of the fact that, after Washington suspended its assistance to Mali’s security forces in response to Assimi Goïta’s coup in late May, the US State Department said it was considering “targeted measures against political and military leaders who impede Mali’s civilian-led transition to democratic governance”.

A few days before France announced that it was temporarily suspending joint military operations with Mali, Washington took a similar decision. Could these moves end up being counterproductive?

Andrew Young: We remain committed to Mali, as demonstrated by our development assistance and diplomatic efforts to support progress in good governance.

We decided to pause our military cooperation because we think re-establishing democracy is essential in order to find a long-term solution to the challenges Mali is facing.

On what terms would you resume cooperation?

Our terms are clear: Mali needs to reaffirm its commitment to a democratic transition and hold a presidential election in accordance with the agreed upon schedule, so in February 2022. We are not willing to compromise on this point.

Our second demand is that they comply with the peace agreement signed in Algiers in 2015, which stipulated the end of hostilities between Bamako and the Coordination of Azawad Movements [CMA].

Does the US government, as French President Emmanuel Macron recently reaffirmed, draw a “red line” when it comes to negotiating with jihadists?

It depends on which jihadists you’re referring to. We cannot negotiate with those who carry out attacks on civilians, kill children and advocate a worldview that’s incompatible with such values as democracy and tolerance.

But as for those who were recruited and became ensnared in the jihadist trap, we can find a way to work around that. Take, for instance, what happened after the Malian city of Gao was liberated in January 2013. Many people who had been wooed by extremist groups later went back on their decision and expressed remorse for their involvement in such groups.

Can we extend an olive branch to these people?

Yes, I think so. It’s difficult, but it’s necessary, for the sake of reconciliation and dialogue between communities, to help those who want to get out of these groups to reintegrate into society. We’re taking this approach in Niger, for example, where we emphasise a three-part method of demobilisation, deradicalisation and reintegration.

The United States is very active in training armed forces in the sub-region. In light of Mali’s trajectory in recent months, do you feel a certain amount of frustration? Do the training programmes need to be re-examined?

US law states that we cannot conduct military training in countries where our interlocutors commit human rights violations. And the training we offer places a great deal of emphasis on protecting such rights. We do not want to, and cannot, work with military forces that have committed human rights abuses.

Is the training you provide truly effective? Why, after all these years, is the Malian military suffering so many defeats at the hands of jihadists?

First of all, the G5 Sahel Joint Force is responsible for the region’s security. Each member country has its own specificities. In Mali, for instance, one of the demands of the people behind the coup [in August 2020] is to increase the competitiveness of the army so that it can meet the security challenges the country is up against. The situation in Niger, where we have a long-standing partnership with local armed forces, is different from the situation in Mali.

In Burkina Faso, the strategy of our engagement has shifted, as we have been training units for several years and monitoring their progress over time. And things have changed since the attacks that targeted a hotel and a restaurant in Ouagadougou in 2016.

In 2018, Burkinabé special forces successfully tracked down the perpetrators of the attack on the Aziz Istanbul cafe in Ouagadougou. Burkina Faso’s defence and security forces also responded to a dual attack on the French embassy and Burkinabé army headquarters. That demonstrates the effectiveness of the training we provide to our partners.

Recently, several sources have reported the death of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram which has thrived in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. Is Washington able to corroborate these reports?

No.

We are working closely with our Nigerian partners, and the Multinational Joint Task Force in particular, but I cannot provide a definitive answer to your question.

Whether in the Central African Republic, Libya or Mali, Moscow has undeniably expanded its influence on the continent in recent years. Does that concern you?

If you take a look at the statistics on Russia and the challenges the country is facing, I think that answers your question. The United States, for its part, has bilateral relations with its African allies and these are countries that share our philosophy.

Our commitment to African states is focused on supporting civilian-led democratic transitions. That’s why I went to Sudan in 2019 after Omar al-Bashir’s ouster, and why I went to Kinshasa after Félix Tshisekedi took office. It’s true that democracy is on the wane around the world. That should bother us. It’s important that we have the energy to counter this loss of democracy.

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