N’DJAMENA: Chad on Monday called for international support to help the beleaguered Sahel as five nations and ally France began a summit on the future of their anti-extremist campaign.
Leaders of the “G5 Sahel” — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — are attending a two-day summit in the Chadian capital N’Djamena with French President Emmanuel Macron joining in by videolink.
Opening the meeting, Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno said the vast Sahel was struggling with “poverty, which is fertile ground for terrorism.”
He said it was time for the international community to “urgently” step up funds for development, to help cut off this source of recruitment for extremists.
The meeting comes a year after France boosted its Sahel deployment, seeking to wrench back momentum in the brutal, long-running battle.
But despite touted military successes, extremists remain in control of vast swathes of territory and attacks are unrelenting.
Just hours before the summit opened, Malian sources said two troops had been killed by a highway bomb in central Mali.
The deaths bring the number of Malian, UN and French troop losses to 29 since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally.
Extremist fighters in the Sahel first emerged in northern Mali in 2012, during a rebellion by ethnic Touareg separatists which was later overtaken by the militants.
France intervened to rout the insurgents, but the extremists scattered, taking their campaign into the ethnic powder keg of central Mali and then into Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, according to the UN, while more than two million people have fled their homes.
The crushing toll has fueled perceptions that the extremists cannot be defeated by military means alone.
Jean-Herve Jezequel, Sahel director for the International Crisis Group think tank, told AFP that conventional military engagement had failed to deliver a knockout blow.
The extremists “are capable of turning their backs, bypassing the system, and continuing,” he said.
Last year, France upped its Barkhane mission in the Sahel from 4,500 troops to 5,100 — a move that precipitated a string of apparent military successes.
French forces killed the leader of the notorious Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, as well as a military chief of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).
But attacks in December and January have brought the number of French combat deaths in Mali to 50, prompting soul-searching at home about Barkhane’s cost and usefulness.
Macron last month opened the door to a drawdown, suggesting France may “adjust” its military commitment.
To lighten the load, France is hoping for more military support from its European partners through the Takuba Task Force which assists Mali in its fight against extremists.
The Sahel armies, for their part, are unable to pick up the slack.
In 2017, the five countries initiated a planned 5,000-man pooled force, but it remains hobbled by lack of funds, poor equipment and inadequate training.
Chad, which reputedly has the best armed forces among the five, promised a year ago to send a battalion to the “three border” flashpoint where the frontiers of Mali, Niger and Burkina converge. The deployment has still not happened.
Paris also hopes last year’s successes can strengthen political reform in the Sahel states, where weak governance has fueled frustration and instability.