France in the Sahel: what next? By Lucien Enev
On the 15th and 16th of February the leaders of the G5-Sahel countries - Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad - gathered at N’Djamena for a summit which was joined virtually by France’s President Emmanuel Macron to discuss the future of France’s military intervention in the Sahel region.
Eight years after former French President François Hollande announced its deployment, Operation Barkhane, which covers a territory eight times vaster than metropolitan France, is beginning to raise many questions. In France, first of all, where public opinion, which until now viewed the operation quite favourably, is increasingly growing opposed to it: according to an ifop poll, only 51% of the French population currently support Barkhane - a 24-point decrease with respect to its launch in 2013.
This trend has several underlying causes. For one, the moral ardour of leading a noble battle against terrorist groups has faded away and French society has shifted the focus on the costs, both human and economic, associated with the intervention. Since 2013, 50 French soldiers have lost their lives in the Sahel region, and the yearly budgetary burden of the war is an estimated 1 billion euros. For many this is simply too much, especially considering the strain that the COVID-19 pandemic is putting on the French economy, which, like other developed economies, is expected to be hit by a wave of insolvency and unemployment.
Furthermore, the results of the operation are mixed, and overall quite difficult to objectively evaluate, not least because the French army does not communicate official numbers of terrorists killed. It would be wrong, however, to say that Barkhane is useless: for instance, in June 2020 Abdelmalek Drukdel, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was eliminated. The French army has also become a de facto agent of state authority in regions where its allies have virtually lost all capacity to exert any military control, and besides, its symbolic posture as a defender against terrorism alone is valuable. But it nevertheless remains that concrete results are disappointing, as they often are in such asymmetrical conflicts: modern drones and aircrafts might be useful against precise, strategic targets; but they are seldom a remedy against the ideological poison used by terrorists in order to fill their ranks with often young, hence vulnerable, recruits.
But support for Operation Barkhane is not only faltering in France. Since last year there has also been outright opposition to it by the populations of France’s Sahelian allies, as protests in Bamako and Ouagadougou have shown. Although France’s help is most welcome by the leaders of the G5-Sahel countries (and by that of the other countries of the Sahelian strip), many civilians see French presence as a military occupation. Moreover, they know that while French troops are present in the region, local governments will enjoy the full support of French diplomacy for the sake of political stability, despite allegations of corruption and undemocratic practices. In addition, recent French air-strikes in early January aimed at jihadi strongholds are claimed by villagers to have killed twenty people attending a marriage - although the French forces deny it -, which will surely not help France in turning the opinion of locals in its favour.
Given the growing lack of support for Barkhane, both in France and in the Sahel region, will France begin withdrawing its troops?
No, asserted Macron during the G5-Sahel summit this February, or at least not in the very near future. It however appeared clear that France intends to change its strategy: it does not want to carry the burden of this operation alone anymore, nor does she want it to drag on forever like the USA’s war in Afghanistan, which lasted eighteen years before the different parties sat at the negotiations table. So, what will this new strategy look like?
Its first pillar will be an “internationalisation” of the operation, as the creation of the “Takuba” Task Force indicates. Takuba is composed of several dozens of soldiers from Estonia, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, and the Netherlands, and demonstrates that France wants its European partners, in particular, to invest more efforts in an operation which, after all, not only protects Europe’s interests in the Northern half of Africa but also secures its borders from terrorists and from a wave of refugees fleeing from the latter. However, this internationalisation is only slowly progressing, as the 5100-strong French contingent will still constitute the bulk of the deployed forces.
The other pillar of this new strategy will be a “Sahelisation” of the operation, much like the “Vietnamisation” of the Vietnam War (although, hopefully, with a better outcome). As French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian put it before the Senate on the 9th of February:
“The summit of Pau was that of the military punch. [The summit of N’Djamena] will be that of the diplomatic, political, and developmental leap in order to secure the achievements of the recent months.”
What this means is that France is well aware that the solution to the stabilisation of the Sahel region can only be exogenous for so long; the time has come for stabilisation from within, through a reassertion of the different states’ authority in areas where they had lost it. Local armies will continue to be trained by French (and other foreign) forces but are expected to become more independent. Moreover, the Sahelisation rests on the economic development of poverty-stricken areas where young people are prone to join terrorist organisations in the absence of other life prospects, and hence France expects the governments of Sahelian countries to be more transparent about the destination of foreign transfers.
Operation Barkhane has so far been costly and is growing unpopular, but it will not end soon. The new strategy which the French government intends to pursue nevertheless indicates some form of lighter engagement in the long run and sketches the prospect, however distant, of a final resolution of the war in the Sahel.