Counterterror Force for West Africa Hurt by U.S.-France Feud

  • Scaling back UN peacekeeping is key goal of U.S. envoy Haley
  • Dispute is latest between Trump and Macron since taking office

France wants to bolster efforts to fight terrorism in West Africa through a United Nations-backed force. The U.S. doesn’t want to get stuck with the bill.

France circulated a draft UN resolution on June 6 authorizing the deployment of a five-country African military force that would “use all necessary means” to combat terrorist organizations in the Sahel, a semiarid region stretching along the southern end of the Sahara from the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea that has become a haven for groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

Usually France, the U.S. and the U.K. team up to persuade Russia and China -- the other members of the veto-wielding Security Council -- to support their initiatives, but this time it’s two historic allies struggling to agree. The French goal conflicts with a key Trump administration objective: scaling back UN deployments as part of a broader effort to rein in spending. The U.S. pays about 28 percent of the UN’s $7.9 billion peacekeeping budget.

“The dispute appears to be mostly about money,” said Richard Atwood, the New York director of the International Crisis Group. “The U.S. is worried that a Security Council resolution might open the door to funding at a time when cutting back their UN funding is a priority.”

President Emmanuel Macron’s government wants to cement gains made by the deployment of French forces to Mali in 2013 to drive out fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups, which had seized key cities in the country’s north, while eventually being able to draw down the approximately 4,000 French troops that remain.

Tight Handshake

French-U.S. tensions are nothing new in diplomacy, but Macron and President Donald Trump have found little common ground on issues such as climate change and the role of the European Union. They even appeared to engage in brinkmanship, of sorts, over a tight handshake in May.

But a public rebuff by the U.S. of the French call for the peacekeeping force would be a new low.

“A U.S. veto would be a major blow to France,” said Martin Quencez, a senior program officer in the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. “A U.S. refusal based purely on stinginess would be very serious and means this won’t be the last standoff.”

The U.S. doesn’t think a formal UN authorization is needed to create the force and believes the French proposal is too broad, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations are continuing. Washington’s contribution to UN peacekeeping is more than the combined payments by China, Japan and Germany, the next three largest contributors.

‘Final Stage’

Under Ambassador Nikki Haley, the U.S. is scrutinizing each of the 16 existing UN peacekeeping missions as they come up for renewal by the Security Council. The world body already agreed to trim personnel and spending on the costliest mission, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, under U.S. pressure.

French officials remain optimistic.

“I believe we are in the final stage of negotiations” in the Security Council, François Delattre, the country’s UN ambassador, told reporters Tuesday. “Recent events in Mali makes it urgent that we act."

France sent a military force to Mali in 2013 to drive out fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups, some of which were linked to al-Qaeda, which had seized key cities in the country’s north. A multinational peacekeeping force backed by the UN was later dispatched to protect the civilians as the French troops battled jihadist groups.

Mali Attacks

Despite France’s military intervention in Mali, the country still suffers attacks, and Islamist groups are spreading in other countries of the Sahel. Four guests and one member of Mali’s security forces died in a militant attack on a resort popular with foreigners on the outskirts of the capital, Bamako, on Sunday, underscoring rising insecurity in the West African nation. According to a UN report, Islamist groups from Mali have also attacked Niger and Burkina Faso.

In response to U.S. criticism, France has revised its draft resolution, which would authorize a force made up of troops from Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

Neither France nor the U.S. is providing financial estimates for the cost of the new force, for which the European Union said it will contribute $56 million. The Mali peacekeeping mission, with about 15,200 personnel currently deployed, has a budget of $933 million for the year ending June 2017.

Such costs are what has the U.S. wavering, even though the Trump administration describes fighting terrorism as one of its top priorities.

“France expected an easier ride, expecting the U.S. to support its resolution because of the counterterrorism element,” said Atwood of the International Crisis Group. “There are questions about the mandate of the mission, particularly regarding which armed groups it will confront. It is almost certain a regional force will deploy, but it is important to clarify exactly what it is doing and how it will relate to the UN peacekeeping mission. ”

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