Operation "Red Desert": with the French in Niger against terrorism and smuggling of migrants

(To Giuseppe De Giorgi)

The official announcement, after the denials in May, arrived in Paris on December 13 2017 during the summit of G5 Sahel: an Italian military contingent, consisting of 470 military and 130 vehicles, will be sent to Niger with the aim of training forces in such a way as to increase the stability of the area and the fight against terrorism in the sub-Saharan African territory, between the Sahara desert in the North and the Savannah of Sudan in the South. of extreme importance for migratory flows directed towards Italy and Europe, for this reason Italian soldiers, in addition to training local forces, will "Surveillance and control of the territory" African in order to "regulate" that route of migrants that from Nigeria arriving in Libya only last year saw about 417 thousand people heading towards the Mediterranean.

The diplomatic pressure of Europe towards Sahel countries to push them to more effectively combat the smuggling of migrants has been going on for months, if not years. Indeed, Niger remains the center of attention for world diplomacies, precisely because it is one of the crucial junctions for trafficking in men, arms and drugs: over the years, the city of Agadez has become one of the continental hubs of migrations to Europe, the meeting point of the Mediterranean with sub-Saharan Africa. In the area long ago French, Americans and Germans are working to control the territory with more or less structured military operations. In fact, in Niger there are already important American contingents (about a thousand supported by drones and at the base of Agadez), and French (about 4 thousand men at the base of Madama), plus the local troops and the various African peacekeeping contingents that they come and go on borders drawn in the sand. The UN is also present in the Sahel with the Stabilization Mission in Mali, MINUSMA (based in Bamako), composed of 10.000 soldiers and 2.000 policemen. International engagement in the Sahel is massive, but, it seems, it is not enough.

Looking at the historical French presence in the area and the recent German protagonism, the choice of the Italian government is probably inevitable in order not to be left out of the Sahel match.

In December 2016 the Italian government officially opened the first embassy in Niger. In August of the same year he signed an agreement with Germany, France, Spain, Niger, Chad and Libya in which economic aid was offered in exchange for a greater commitment in the fight against the smuggling of migrants. Finally, in September, the Ministry of Defense signed a military collaboration agreement with Niger. Italy's entry into this important diplomatic chessboard aims to increase the diplomatic weight of our country in the face of international actors who are preparing themselves for ever greater commitments on the territory: new and modern military bases are in fact emerging in Niger to better defend the various international interests. It is clear that for the national interest and for the Italian role in Libya, it would have been better to send our contingent to Fezzan, in line with the initiatives already taken by Minister Minniti with the "stakeholders" in that area. It would have been a strong signal in favor of Al Serraji and a warning to Haftar of Italian will and ability to play an active and credible role in Libya. But here is the point. We do not have the political strength, first of all, to support a possible disagreement with Haftar, although its strength is more theoretical than concrete. In this sense, our acquiescence to Haftar's threats to attack Italian ships was emblematic if they entered the Libyan territorial waters in response to the requests of the legitimate Libyan government, supported by the UN, as well as by Italy itself.

An autonomous Italian presence in Fezzan would have also hindered the projects of France in that area of ​​Libya, especially after the discovery of important gold deposits (v.articolo, ed). Better from the French point of view to co-opt Italy in the context of a French leadership mission in Niger.

After the Second World War the role of "guide" under the military profile was recognized by Italy only to the USA, the UN or the EU. France was considered a competitor (often the most insidious) and our governments avoided taking subordinate roles to it. With the shift of US strategic focus to Asia and Britain's Brexit, our historic "protectors", in terms of containing French ambitions, are distracted elsewhere, leaving us exposed.

Our increased weakness, the habit of taking refuge in "multilateralism", to avoid responsibility for decisions motivated by the defense of the national interest as such, leads us today to recognize to France the role of a reference State for our security and not only. It is no coincidence that this growing subjection to France is also having effects on the progressive loss of autonomous capabilities in the Defense-related industry as well as in other sectors such as banking, communications and retail.

That of the Sahel is a forgotten war. The French are at the head of an anti-terrorist operation since the summer 2014 which provides for the presence of 3.000 soldiers between Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad, the latter being the most important ally of Paris in Africa. The Germans have an ever-increasing presence in Mali, and for logistics they rely on Niamey Airport, the capital of Niger. The two European allies are moving in close coordination with an increasingly less discreet presence. The United States is present with special forces and drones.

The first of the threats that Italian mission will be called to face will be that posed byIslamist jihadism, which in the border areas between Niger, Libya and Algeria (in the West) and Niger, Libya and Chad (in the East) has absorbed the veterans of the long Algerian battles and exploited the fragmentation of Libya to strengthen and become increasingly insidious. The Italian contingent should replace the French garrison that presides over the Madama outpost, an old fort of the Foreign Legion not far from the Libyan border. Officially the primary task of the Italian contingent will probably be thetraining of local forces. A part of our men should be stationed in Niamey, the capital of the country, where it would contribute to the formation of Nigerian military aviation. The deployment of Italian forces stems from the agreement signed last May with Libya, Chad and Niger for collaboration in the control of flows and the construction of reception centers for migrants passing through those countries.

The one that is about to start it will be a difficult mission, the most delicate in recent years according to many, and with great logistical difficulties, given that most of the Italian contingent's resources will land on the Benin coast and from there will travel 2.400 kilometers largely to Nigeria. Furthermore, the economic cost of a mission of this type must not be underestimated: send and maintain a contingent of only 470 soldiers, in such an inaccessible and difficult territory as the Sahara will have substantial logistic costs (bearing in mind that most of the supplies will have to take place by area).

From the composition of the quota it will be possible to identify the actual tasks that it will / can perform. With 470 men only, the consistency of the maneuvering pawns appears in the first instance rather modest, considering that the Army in general travels "heavy" from the logistic point of view. It is likely that the operational component from which to draw any patrols will not exceed the company. The military role will therefore - initially at least - rather limited. However, it is foreseeable that, as for the other missions abroad, progressive increases will follow, once the political approval is obtained for the start of the operation. The second step normally consists in inserting helicopters for tactical mobility and Medvacs (medical evacuation), then some Mangusta attack helicopters and additions of various personnel (predictable the goal of deploying a thousand men). With the arrival of gen. Vecciarelli (current Chief of Staff of the Air Force) in Defense in place of Graziano, expected by next November, will also witness the increase in the presence of personnel and means of the AMI.

Fundamental for the success of the enterprise will be, by the Government, to approve "Rules of engagement" suitable to protect our soldiers, putting them in a position to operate in the safest and most effective way possible, avoiding being reduced to the role of troops "burdensome", with obvious prejudice to the quality and political returns of our participation.

The risk of having inadequate rules of engagement is always very present when we talk about sending our contingents abroad and it is historically one of the reasons that have often damaged our operational credibility, nullifying on many occasions the political returns of our military commitment . In many cases, the Italian participation in international military coalitions has been understood as an image operation, on two levels, that of the internal public opinion (to show that the Government had the courage to act) and the international one, offering to the reference ally (usually the US) the possibility of being able to connote US military interventions (Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, etc.) as an expression of the international community as a whole. Hence the lack of political sensitivity for ROE (Rules Of Engagement) that went beyond simple self-defense (the Constitution does not prohibit the use of force in missions other than war).

In general, the tendency of Italian governments has been to send our contingents to the theater with insufficient rules of engagement to acquire the military initiative and contribute incisively to the collective effort in the theater.

On a mission like Red Desert one of the objectives of direct national interest is the control and the contrast of human traffickers. It would be a perfect operation for our special forces' teams, but what would happen if we intercepted traffickers or Jihadist groups? They could not attack them on their own initiative (not being in self-defense), or arrest them, having no jurisdiction in Niger, or hand them over to nations that have the death penalty ... so? There remains the role of instructors and mentors for local forces. A task certainly not to be underestimated and that we will do well, but at a lower level than the active contrast of the threats present in that part of Africa.

For ROEs it is possible to resort to an "Italian" solution, inserting in the out of area decree a clause of impunity for the Italian military that, by applying the rules of engagement, should violate the law. In the past this trick, included in some decrees outside the area, was disappointing compared to expectations, because, not protecting the authorities responsible for issuing the rules of engagement, but only the executors, has effectively inhibited the approval of permissive ROE by the higher-level chain of command. Not everyone knows that every time our military fires a shot in the operative theater the Carabinieri communicate it to a Magistrate in Rome who opens a file, with all due respect to the commanders and the personnel in operation.

Another gray area is that of the application of the law of Niger to our soldiers, in case of crimes involving civilians. Normally this aspect is defined by agreements made by the United States or the UN (for the whole coalition) with the state in which it operates, also because in fact it is generally operations in countries substantially occupied militarily as a result of war operations ( Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.). But in this case? This aspect should be carefully defined, probably with a bilateral agreement with Niger.

If the Niger police tried to arrest a Frenchman, we know how it would end. Unfortunately we also know if an Italian was arrested .... It is therefore an aspect not to be underestimated.

The mission will involve a territory that France has always considered under its sphere of influence. The problem that must be managed is not naturally the Italian presence, but the German one. For some time Germany has quietly expanded its contribution of men in the territory until arriving at the end of January passed to become the largest deployment of the Bundeswehr currently abroad in order to "Assisting the central government and the authoritiesà premises of Niger, as well asé security forces in the development of policies, techniques and procedures to better control and combat irregular migration ". However, the current difficulties of Merkel and Macron's growing weight on the European balance make it clear that France's role in this part of Africa is not yet questioned. France will continue to be the weaver of the fragile Libyan political balance, with an eye to the great gold deposits in Fezzan, of uranium in Niger and in the perspective of including Libya in Africa with French influence. Macron 's interest in the Sahel region is strong and also makes use of the force of the soft-power French in the region, in order to make France one of the first international interlocutors in the area, as well as a leading exponent of the fight against terrorism and a major foreign power in the region. It is therefore not to be excluded that, in parallel with the fight against terrorism and the issue of migrants, a different game also takes place. Hence the importance for Italy of having full awareness of the real stakes and the role to play in the story. Making decisions only in terms of public opinion at the time of elections would risk having negative consequences, not only for national prestige, but also for the safety of our soldiers.

(photo: Ministère de la Défense / US DoD / US Air Force / BBC)