On Thursday the German Parliament, the Bundestag, debated mandate governing the deployment of his troops in the Sahel, a vast patch of land that stretches at the southern end of the Sahara desert.
The region, which includes Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, has experienced an unprecedented wave of violence in recent years, with increasingly ambitious and complex attacks.
The German Bundeswehr is currently involved in two missions in the Sahel: the European Union training mission (EUTM) and the UN MINUSMA peacekeeping mission, both based in Mali.
The German government has proposed extending two mandates for one year, until May 2021, and expanding Bundeswehr participation in EU training missions.
Angela Merkel’s cabinet has indicated that they support the extension of time, but there is disagreement about how the Bundeswehr should expand its operations.
After Thursday’s debate, the Bundestag referred to the motions presented by the country’s various political parties to the committee for further consultation.
Engaged by violence
Rebel and extremist groups control much of the Sahel and often carry out attacks on security forces, making people vulnerable and hampering much-needed development.
This week alone, jihadists attacked three villages in Niger, killing 20, temporarily in Mali, three UN peacekeepers were killed and in neighboring Burkina Faso, eight soldiers were killed in clashes with armed attackers.
Such grim reports worry German politicians.
“The Sahel region is the key to the development of West and North Africa. Failure to stop terrorism and advance the economic development of countries in the region will generate significant turmoil in the region if the government there fails to cooperate,” Jürgen Hardt, parliamentary spokesman for foreign policy for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel’s conservative party, told DW in an interview.
Germany is worried that the region can become a retreat zone for terrorist groups that operate globally. In addition, if a state of collapse and poverty continues to grow, that could encourage more migration from the region to Europe.
Expanding the field of operations
In an effort to help curb such a possibility, the German government wants to expand the number of Bundeswehr troops from 350 to 450.
In addition, it has proposed permission for German troops to accompany their Malian counterparts across the country, rather than restricting their operations to relative safety in southern Mali.
Although German troops will still not be able to take part in combat operations, such placement is likely to be more dangerous, because attacks on armed forces are common in many parts of Mali.
The German government has also suggested expanding the advisory role played by German forces in Mali to include other Sahel countries in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger and Chad.
“The border between these countries is not an obstacle to terrorism. Just concentrating on one country makes no sense,” Hardt said.
At the same time, CDU MPs also called for more help for the civilian population.
“In addition to the Bundeswehr’s commitment to training police and military forces, the development and involvement of economic policies is also very important,” Hardt said.
From a CDU perspective, German support must take into account local needs.
Limited mission impact
Matthias Basedau, director of the GIGA Institute for African Studies in Hamburg, agreed that it was important to adapt such missions to local needs, but at the same time warned about the limits of military cooperation.
“It is important to realize that problems on the ground can only be resolved by the government and local residents,” Besedau said. “So far, the experience of training security forces in the Sahel has been serious. It has proven difficult to actually implement reasonable steps if the government on the ground is not fully involved.”
Some German political opposition is very critical in expanding the Bundeswehr training mission to other Sahel countries.
“The training mission aims to train soldiers in fragile democracies to stabilize democracy,” said Frithjof Schmidt, a parliamentary and foreign policy expert for the left-leaning Green Party.
“If you want to expand it, you suddenly find yourself dealing with authoritarian governments and dictatorships like in Chad. I think that is a serious mistake,” Schmidt told DW.
There are no combat operations
Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a member of Merkel’s CDU, initially pushed for a stronger military deployment, suggesting that German forces should take part in French-led combat operations against extremist groups.
This will expose German troops to new dangers, which will be very unpopular in the eyes of the German public. The idea seems to have been saved for now.
Christoph Hoffmann, a development policy spokesman for the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) parliamentary group in the Bundestag, criticized the current level of government involvement in the Sahel.
“The federal government has so far only differentiated itself through half-hearted commitments,” Hoffmann told DW.
He said the region was in dire need of investment and jobs, but German companies would only invest “if conditions are right.” Therefore the federal government needs to increase the scope of risk for German investment in the field, he said.
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