Estonian special operations forces are set to join the new France-led Task Force Takuba in the Sahel in the second half of 2020, the Ministry of Defence said on Wednesday, November 13.
Estonian troops have been deployed to Operation Barkhane in Mali since August 2018, and the parliament last week approved a planned increase in the number of troops deployed to 95, including special operations forces.
Ministry of Defence spokesperson Roland Murof told The Defense Post that deployment will be in two stages.
“The current contribution of an infantry platoon will be strengthened with the additional capabilities of medical, EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] and JTAC [joint terminal attack controller] domain, starting from April 2020,” Murof said, adding that the platoon will continue in its primary force protection role.
The Estonian contingent is currently stationed in the central Mali town of Gao at the country’s major permanent French base. The large camp in Gao is shared between Barkhane forces, the United Nations peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, and the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa).
Estonian SOF will deploy to Takuba in ‘second half of 2020’
The deployment of an Estonian special operations forces unit is planned for the second half of 2020, Murof said, and it will contribute to France’s planned Task Force Takuba.
On November 5, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said that France expected the new international special operations task force to deploy in Mali by 2020 to help train local troops. Around a dozen countries have been approached to join Takuba, which means “sabre” in the Tuareg language.
The French plans for a new Sahel task force were first reported in early October. At the time it was said that the aim is to improve basic training for Sahelien military forces, beginning with Mali, freeing up Barkhane personnel and enabling them to focus on pursuing insurgents and preventing attacks.
The confirmation that Estonian special forces will join Takuba appears to be the first public commitment to the task force by a partner military, but when asked about contributions from other states, the French armed forces reiterated Parly’s earlier comments.
“About a dozen European nations have expressed an interest in taking part in this initiative,” a spokesperson for the General Command of the Armed Forces of France told The Defense Post on Wednesday. “However, we cannot be more specific until these partners confirm and announce their contribution.”
Other states have been tight-lipped on planned contributions, but a spokesperson for U.S. Africa Command earlier said American troop deployments to the new task force are not being considered.
“U.S. Africa Command will continue to support our French and other partners as they strive to improve security in West Africa through the establishment of TF TAKUBA,” spokesperson Becky Farmer told The Defense Post on November 6. “However, AFRICOM is not considering additional deployments to participate in TF TAKUBA.”
Train, advise, assist, accompany?
The French armed forces spokesperson was similarly circumspect when asked about the size of the planned force and what roles Takuba personnel will undertake, but referred to it as a “special forces unit” rather than a “task force.”
“The specific categorization of this unit is to be confirmed at a later stage,” the spokesperson said. “The size and mission types of special forces unit Takuba will also be clarified later on, as well as the interactions it might have with other multinational and international forces.”
However, it appears that Takuba will follow successful models employed by multinational coalitions in other theaters, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
“The SOF unit is planned to assist, advise and accompany Malian security forces units,” the Estonian spokesperson Murof said.
On Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron said France was “confirming and consolidating its commitment” to the Sahel, and that decisions would be taken “in the coming weeks.”
Following talks with his counterparts from Chad, Niger and Mali, Macron said that additional military resources would be forthcoming by early 2020.
Macron said progress had been made “on the security situation” and decisions would be announced on revamping the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S), the planned 4,500-strong joint counter-terrorism force comprising troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
Spearheaded by France and launched in 2017, the initiative has been undermined by lack of training, poor equipment and a shortage of funds.
“To fully play its role and yield more tangible results, the Joint Force will need more support,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a report to the Security Council released on Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, the European Union’s diplomatic chief said the bloc will increase its presence and the level of support it gives to its partners fighting terrorism in the troubled Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa.
Macron’s comments came ahead of a key counter-terrorism summit on Thursday – at the request of France, members of the U.S.-led Global Coalition Against ISIS will meet in Washington. The meeting comes after U.S. officials said in August that the U.S. will seek additional contributions from the Coalition to combat the group and its affiliates in Africa.
International operations in the Sahel
In 2012 a Tuareg separatist uprising against the state was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in Mali’s desert north.
France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, and the MINUSMA peacekeeping force was then established.
But the militant groups have morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency has gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. Large swathes of Mali remain outside government control, and inter-ethnic bloodshed is a regular occurrence.
The U.N. says that since January more than 1,500 civilians have been killed in Burkina Faso and Mali, and more than one million people have been internally displaced across the five Sahel states – more than twice the number displaced in 2018. Access has become increasingly difficult, but 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Many armed groups are active in the Sahel region, including Islamic State-affiliated groups, but the majority of attacks are attributed to JNIM, which formed in March 2017 from a merger of several smaller groups including the Sahara branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and al-Mourabitoun. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The Serval mission evolved in August 2014 into Operation Barkhane, and roughly 4,500 French troops are deployed in the region, including around 2,700 soldiers in Mali.
But Barkhane has a growing international dimension, with European partners sending more troops and equipment. Denmark is to send two helicopters and up to 70 troops to support Barkhane in December and Estonia is to almost double the size of its Barkhane contingent in 2020. Chinook helicopters from the United Kingdom currently support the operation.
Operation Barkhane focuses activity in insurgent-hit Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, and troops work alongside other international operations, including the the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the roughly 14,000-strong MINUSMA U.N. stabilization mission in Mali.
Around 620 troops from 22 member states and five non-E.U. states work with the Malian Armed Forces and the FCG5S in European Union Training Mission – Mali, which has a mandate until May 2020. Around 14,000 FAMa personnel have been trained since the mission was established in 2013.
Niger hosts an estimated 800 U.S. troops, the largest American deployment in Africa.
Earlier this month, AFRICOM said U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flight operations had begun from Nigerien Air Base 201 in the northern city of Agadez.
The government of Niger recently gave the U.S. permission to arm drones stationed in the country, and armed U.S drones already fly from Air Base 101 near the capital Niamey, around 800 km southwest of Agadez.
Parly said the U.S. supported an October 8 operation in Mali that lead to the death of senior JNIM figure Ali Maychou, describing him as “the second most-wanted terrorist in the Sahel, including by the Americans.”
An AFRICOM spokesperson declined to disclose what support was given “to preserve operational security for future missions,” but noted that “France and the U.S. routinely share assets, such as medical evacuation and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.”