For more than three years, the Trump administration has questioned the value of a multibillion-dollar peacekeeping mission in West Africa presented as a bulwark against terrorist networks in the region. Now, the United States is encouraging an American national to take the helm of the United Nations mission in Mali, fueling suspicions that Washington is seeking to extend its influence there to accelerate the gradual withdrawal from the mission.
Trump administration officials have quietly lobbied diplomats from France and the United Nations to appoint David Gressly, a former United States official who has held several senior positions within the global body, as as the United Nations Special Representative for Mali, overseeing a force of more than 11,000 African and European peacekeepers. If selected, he will replace a former Chadian foreign minister, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, who is due to step down early next year after five years of work.
But France – which maintains an anti-terrorist force of more than 4,500 men in the semi-arid region of the West African Sahel – was cold when faced with the prospect of an American at the head of the mission, preferring that the post be provided by an African candidate from a French-speaking country. , according to Western and UN officials familiar with the issue. The United Nations mission, known as MINUSMA, constitutes an essential pillar of French ambitions and ultimately avoids costly counterterrorism operations in the enlarged Sahel. France has urged the UN to expand its role in the region, providing logistical support to a coalition of regional governments, the G5 Sahel, which Paris hopes will be able to fill the void when French forces start to leave.
The United States has long been skeptical of the French approach, citing the failure of the United Nations, Paris and its African allies to curb the rise of Islamist terrorists and to establish peace between the central government of Mali and the north of the Tuaregs. Extremist groups, some affiliated with ISIS and Al Qaeda, have spread from large areas of rural Mali further east and south, to Niger and Burkina Faso in recent years. The groups exploited local grievances to gain political foundations in regions struggling with weak governance and limited development.
Violent incidents in the region linked to extremist groups have double every year since 2015, despite billions of dollars in international aid and military assistance to regional governments to quell violence. This has led to growing frustration in Washington with the United Nations mission – both its high price and its leader, Annadif.
” [Annadif] Perhaps once could have been an effective leader for the mission, but that time is long gone, “said an experienced US official. “Annadif’s only public service appears to be the bureaucrat in charge of what is actually a billion dollar air services group that runs a shuttle service for Malian VIPs and logistical support [for] French Operation Barkhane, “said the official, referring to the French anti-terrorist operation.
“Other than that, it has failed to achieve any of the political goals that led to the creation of MINUSMA. “
The French want to adapt the mission and extend its mandate to support operations beyond the Malian border, an initiative that comes with higher costs, officials close to the case said. But the Trump administration – which has shown greater skepticism towards the UN and tried unsuccessfully last year to shave 2,000 soldiers from the mission in Mali – should renew its campaign to cap costs and the level of troops, said several US officials familiar with the matter. The United States wants to advance a plan in which the mission has clearly defined success criteria and a timetable for terminating operations without increasing the mission’s budget, said US officials.
MINUSMA was established in April 2013 after French forces intervened in the country to quell an insurgency in northern Mali by Islamist militants who threatened to take control of the former French colony. The deadliest United Nations mission, which lost some 209 peacekeepers in the line of duty, is tasked with stabilizing the northern and central regions of the country and concluding an elusive peace agreement between the ruling elites of the country in Bamako and the northern Tuaregs.
The selection of Gressly as the new head of mission would leave Annadif, the latest in a series of African and European diplomats who led the United Nations mission. Some American officials criticize Annadif.
Despite criticism from some in Washington, Annadif had earned a reputation in other United Nations circles as a savvy political operator who had many contacts between the government and armed opposition groups. Gressly, a UN official said, would have big shoes to fill.
Succession dispute comes as U.S. ponders Africa’s military footprint – a decision strongly opposed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who fear that such a decision would undermine long-standing counterterrorism priorities and strengthen China’s hand on the mainland. Senior French officials have also urged the US military to maintain its footprint in West Africa. French troops rely on logistical, drone and American intelligence support for their operations in the region. “If the Americans decided to leave Africa, it would be really bad news for us,” said French President Emmanuel Macron after a summit with African leaders in January. “I hope I can convince the president [Donald] Trump that the fight against terrorism is also taking place in this region. “
He also intervenes as the United States and France prepare for a diplomatic struggle over the future of the Malian mission to the United Nations Security Council, which must vote to extend the mandate of the mission by the end of June . In January, the United States called for a reduction in the number of United Nations peacekeepers in Mali, but the move was quickly criticized by France and Russia.
A State Department spokesman, however, rejected the idea that Washington and Paris were fighting over Sahel politics. “We are not going to comment on our internal diplomatic negotiations before the renewal of the mandate of next month, but contrary to the press articles, the consultations between France and the United States on this question were, in fact, cordial and constructive” , spokesman said.
In recent months, the Trump administration has also lobbied for NATO to open discussions on the terrorist threat in the Sahel, with a view to possibly considering a NATO mission to support regional stability. Two US officials in Washington have warned that this idea was in its infancy and that it was not fixed and that it did not become a major item on the agenda of NATO leaders in Brussels . Officials said that such a mission would be in line with Trump’s repeated calls for the alliance to do more on the fight against terrorism and meet the need for greater international involvement in the Sahel. But it is unclear whether other members of NATO would accept such a plan, including France, which instead advocates increased engagement of the Sahel at the European Union level. NATO would only accept such a mission if it had a consensus among its 30 members and an invitation from the African governments in question. (A NATO spokesperson declined to comment.)
US lawmakers are also increasingly concerned about how extremist groups in the Sahel are rapidly gaining power and importance in the region. Representative Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a bill that would, among other things, prompt the administration to draft an interagency strategy on how it responds to terrorist threats by North and West Africa. The bill is now in the Senate, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on Thursday.
Gressly, a former Peace Corps volunteer, also has extensive experience in the region. He oversaw humanitarian operations and was a deputy special representative in Mali. A UN official described him as a “badass, very operational”, but lacking the political skills of the current occupant of the post.
“He is a serious and very committed guy,” said the official, adding that he could sometimes be “a bit of a tyrant.”
Others disputed the story, saying that Gressly had accumulated extensive political experience during a long career with the United Nations holding positions of responsibility in South Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
During the first half of 2013, Gressly played a role in initiating preliminary political contacts between the Malian government and armed groups in northern Mali, regularly commuting for talks between Bamako and Kidal. Gressly was a candidate for the highest United Nations post in Mali in the past, but his candidacy was rejected by France, which supported a Tunisian candidate for the post.
Gressly was appointed Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations for the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2015. Last June, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, contacted him to coordinate the United Nations response to the Ebola epidemic.
Despite France’s reluctance about US proposals on the Sahel, Paris has investigated French diplomats and military officers who served with Gressly, a potential sign that it is at least considering the prospect of his appointment, according to a diplomatic source.
Some UN officials have speculated that there could be an advantage for the French if an American was appointed to the post. Having an American in the post, they said, could convince Washington to reconsider its desire to reduce or close the mission.
“French diplomats and defense officials have been urging the United States for the past few months to maintain their support for the mission,” said a UN official. “If Annadif is not seen as an effective mission manager, Gressly would be stronger on this front. “