Washington - The Trump administration said Monday it would contribute an initial $60 million (about R842 million) to help five nations in Africa's Sahel region build a cross-border counterterrorism force but balked at a plan to provide multilateral support through the United Nations.
US Ambassador Nikki Haley told the U.N. Security Council that "we have reservations" about a proposal to expand an existing peacekeeping operation in the arid, sub-Saharan region of West Africa to provide logistical and other assistance to the force.
The peacekeeping group, called MINUSMA, "expends most of its resources protecting and supplying itself" amid increasing terrorist attacks, she said.
The Security Council meeting came amid growing international concern about the Sahel, where terrorism is on the rise, and local criminal and extremist groups have increasingly sought alliances with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Earlier this month, four U.S. soldiers, part of a long-term mission to train and assist local forces in Niger, were killed in a militant ambush.
Three MINUSMA members were killed last week. Neither the more than 800 American troops in Niger nor the more than 13 000-strong MINUSMA force in neighboring Mali are authorised to launch offensive operations against the militants.
Security forces of the five Sahel countries - Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania - cannot cross each other's borders to pursue attackers, and coordination among them has been limited.
Earlier this year, with strong support from France, the former colonial power that has 4 000 troops in the region, the countries proposed forming their own 5 000-strong cross-border force.
Since then, the force, known as the G5, has recruited troops, built a headquarters, and written an operational plan and budget. France has contributed money, along with other European governments and the European Union.
The United States has objected to U.N. funding plans. As the force prepares for its first operations at the end of the year, the effort is considerably short of its budget of about half a billion dollars, as well as lacking important capabilities.
During a tour of Africa last week, Haley said in an interview that she wants to know "what the strategy would be, how they see this playing out, what's involved in it before we ever commit to U.N.-assessed funding."
President Donald Trump has frequently questioned the efficacy of the United Nations, and Haley and Trump have said they are examining a U.N. system in which the United States pays about a quarter of the annual budget.
Monday's council meeting, chaired by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, included a report from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and input from council members who visited the region last month. Following the session, proponents of the G5 force said they were relieved the United States did not dismiss U.N. support out of hand.
Guterres appealed for "greater coherence amongst various national, international and regional initiatives" that operate in the region.
"Time is not on our side," he told the council. "We need to urgently coordinate our efforts in order to nip in the bud the underlying sources of instability."
The Sahel countries have launched a "courageous initiative" he said deserves "strong political, as well as operational and material support."
In advance of a donor conference in December, Guterres has proposed four options with varying degrees of multilateral support, and proponents of the force hope to persuade the administration to agree.
Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop, addressing the council on behalf of the force, offered a more advanced description of its formation than what Haley described. The Mali headquarters, he said, is "fully functional," as are regional command posts in Chad, Niger and Mauritania. Troops have been mobilised and supplied "on the basis of funds provided by" the members.
But "to achieve full operational capacity by a March deadline," he said, they "will need bilateral and multilateral support." Multilateral support, "principally through the U.N. . . . will ensure predictability and sustainability."
Still required, he said, are additional infrastructure, information and communication technology, anti-IED technology, medical training "and medical evacuation capability on land and in the air."
Nearly all 15 members of the council, with the exception of the United States and Britain, spoke in favor of multilateral support. Russia, as it often has in the past, blamed the United States and NATO countries that intervened in Libya in 2011 for creating a "catalyst of insecurity in this region" with their contributions to the overthrow of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
Several speakers emphasised the G5 force must include strong human rights, development and governance components. Without education, health and employment programs, Le Drian said, "we will not be able to prevent large numbers of young people" from giving in to "despair" and providing fresh recruits for extremists.
Militant operations in the region, he said, "make a mockery of borders" and the new force is the only way to move quickly against upheaval and lawlessness in the region, including drug smuggling and human trafficking.
France, which initially deployed to the region in early 2013 to oust Islamist militants from northern Mali, subsequently expanded its operations to a permanent counterterrorism mission. But the French goal is ultimately to turn those operations over to an all-African force. The Europeans are also eager to stop migrant smuggling from the region.
The G5, Le Drian said, "has the full support of France." While challenges remain, he said, "it is worth noting that eight months after the initial announcement, the joint force is a reality."
France, he said, is convinced the international community should support the force. "The question today is how. Bilateral support ... is crucial," he said. "But we must also take steps to deliver multilateral aid," not only to ensure that the force is sustainable, "but as an "important signal of international support in their struggle against terrorism" that he said "runs amok over the entire Sahel region."