Italy is going to participate in Niger in one of the most critical international missions. However, in our political debate the culture of defense and security is not the same of US, UK or even France and, unfortunately, a real discussion on the substance of our military commitments is not encouraged because of ideological positions and the typical clash between majority and opposition.
After the military defeat of ISIS, the Italian Government has decided that some of the 1400 troops that were engaged in Iraq in training local security forces and in protecting critical infrastructures will be transferred to Niger in West Africa. Given the African country’s government request of assistance, Italy will contribute to stabilize the entire Sahel region, undertaking a multidimensional effort that goes from fighting terrorism to contrasting human trafficking, from promoting local development to stabilizing the southern-Libyan borders. In this framework, Sahel is a complex area that sees the presence of about 4000 French soldiers in Barkhane Operation since 2014. Now, President Macron is looking for military assistance from the allies (Germany and Italy), claiming the role of France in a context that would need the full attention and involvement of European partners. Moreover, engaged in the fight against jihadist terrorist groups, US special forces are conducting relevant military activities in Niger and recently the US DoD has reached an agreement with the Nigerien Government for the provision of drones and capabilities that will be deployed in the forthcoming Agadez airbase.
This new operation has attracted many critical observations, and some of them are based on our relationship with France and its foreign policy, arguing for example that we are going to this mission in order to protect some French interests, as the extraction of uranium, being Niger the third global producer. In addition, the recall of the 2011 French-led intervention in Libya should lead Italy to refrain from cooperating with France that has ever been attracted by the ambition to damage our interests. However, this kind of criticism has not solid foundations for different reasons.
First, current Macron’s foreign policy paradigm has nothing in common with Sarkozy’s catastrophic view of the world. President Macron’s initiatives in the context of G5-Sahel respond to the need of preventing that jihadist groups stabilize in West Africa; obviously France will protect also its political and economic interests in the area – it would be curious if a country did not.
Second, this intervention will involve significant intelligence activities, needed for ensuring a fully awareness of the situation on the ground. In this perspective, for historical reasons the entire Sahel region has ever been under the French influence. If, as some criticizers think, Italy represented the rival to “colonize” and to obstruct, it would be weird for the DGSE (French intelligence) to allow a significant Italian presence with the risk of expanding the role of our AISE in Niger and Sahel. Adopting the logic of reasoning of this kind of criticism, it is evident that on the one side France gains in terms of a partial reduction of its presence and with more aid in military operations, but on the other side we have a whole French-influenced region opened to our intelligence and where Italy can expand its role, with potential future implications on Sahel geopolitical equilibria. So, this critical view vis-à-vis the supposed role of Italy in protecting French interests is weak because, in this case, for France the drawbacks would outweigh the potential benefits.
It will be a major opportunity for claiming our political line founded on the policies proposed by Minister of Interior Marco Minniti during all 2017
Third, Niger is a real intricate scenario that deserves the complete attention of Italy and other European countries. The risk that what remains from ISIS fighters on the run from Middle East are going to stabilize in Sahel is high. In addition, the instability of the region is already fueled by the presence of some Al-Qaeda groups and by the fact Niger is the most relevant transit country for human trafficking. Although I think that it would have been suitable a EU-NATO-led mission, exploiting in particular the Atlantic Alliance partners in West Africa, the full involvement of France, Germany, Italy, United States, in direct cooperation with the countries of G5-Sahel, makes this commitment as one of the most significant among the current international missions.
Therefore, Niger is a typical situation where it is marked the convergence of interests between different international players and, given the unusual circumstance, we should extract the maximum benefits. It would be irrational missing this opportunity for ideological reasons. However, it is essential that the Italian public discussion leaves the traditional self-pitying mood. We should not look at French initiatives, for example in Libya, as attempts to marginalize the Italian role. This happens if and only if we show us politically weak and if governmental instability and the hostility in the public debate prevail over a desired unity of purpose between majority and opposition on main foreign policy dossiers. Thus, we should be aware that sustaining our national interest in Libya goes through the military engagement in Niger. It will be a major opportunity for claiming our political line founded on the policies proposed by Minister of Interior Marco Minniti during all 2017, and for bringing Italy at the same table of France, Germany and United States with respect to projecting stability and development in the African continent.
Taking care of our national interest does not mean to incite a sentiment of retaliation and hostility toward our allies and closer countries. Instead, we should remember that Italian expertises in training local security forces and in defence institution building are recognized worldwide. We should remember that Italy is the champion of projecting stability.