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French Military in the Sahel: An Unwinnable (Dis)Engagement? 

French Military in the Sahel: An Unwinnable (Dis)Engagement? 
 Mahaut de Fougières
Head of the International Politics Program

On June 10, during a press conference ahead of the G7 and NATO summits, President Macron announced the end of the French Operation Barkhane in the Sahel. Although quite sensational, this announcement does not mean the end of the French military presence in the Sahel. Rather, it signals the end of Barkhane "as an external operation", indicating more of an evolution of the current French involvement, in favor of an international coalition. He added that the details and timetable of this shift would be specified by the end of June. 

Operation Barkhane has taken place in the Sahel beginning in 2014. It followed the successful Operation Serval, launched in 2013 at Mali’s request in order to oust Islamic militants from the North of the country, who were preparing an offensive towards Bamako. Barkhane operates across Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, in an effort to fight islamist terrorism in the region. Despite some success during these eight years of massive engagement - including the neutralization of a number of top al Qaeda leaders such as Abdelmadek Droukdel, founder of Aqmi (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), or Bah Ag Moussa, military leader of the Sahelian branch of Al-Qaeda - France has not managed to stop the spiral of jihadist violence in the Sahel, a desert region of 4 million square kilometers, plagued by trafficking and illicit activities. There has been mixed messaging regarding President Macron’s position on the operation. Although the timing was unexpected, the decision didn’t fully come as a surprise, given that President Macron had been looking for a change for months. At the same time, in January 2020, at a Summit he held in the French town of Pau with the leaders of Sahel countries, he announced an increase in troop numbers by 600 - bringing it to 5,100 today. A year later, when the leaders reconvened in the capital of Chad, N’Djamena, in February 2021, no further change was announced, contrary to what was expected. 

So why now? 

Three main factors explain the decision to go ahead and reduce the French presence in the Sahel. 

First, there had been some irritation brewing towards the heads of state of the region and their lack of responsibility: "We cannot secure certain areas because some states simply refuse to assume their duties" Emmanuel Macron declared in his press conference. A week earlier, on June 3, Paris had decided to temporarily suspend joint operations between French and Malian troops. This occurred after two military coups took place in Mali in less than a year, both led by Colonel Assimi Goita, who was declared president on May 28. Following the "coup within a coup", President Macron threatened to withdraw French troops if the Malian transition was not restored. Another important hit came with the death of Idriss Déby, Chad’s President, in April, replaced by his son soon after. This "dynastic coup", as opposition leaders call it, has posed a major dilemma for President Macron, since France absolutely needs the Chadian army for the success of Barkhane, as Michel Duclos explains.

Second, President Macron’s willingness to transform the French presence in the Sahel in recent months was; in part; motivated by growing criticism from local populations, encouraged by disinformation operations conducted by hostile powers, including Russia. In January 2021, a demonstration was held in Bamako to protest the French military presence in the country. The January 2020 Pau Summit was partly organized as a way to make Sahel leaders - who’s position on the matter President Macron found ambiguous - publicly renew their request for French support in the fight against terrorism in the region, in order to relegitimize Barkhane. The French President had then told Sahel leaders that all options were on the table, including a potential retreat of French troops. The tone was similar in his June 10 press conference: he insisted that French support would be granted to "the countries of the region that requested it".

President Macron intends to avoid falling into the same trap of an endless war, unwinnable and unacceptable to French citizens. 

Last but not least, this announcement comes as the campaign for the 2022 French presidential election is being launched. As early as 2017, during the last presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron expressed his reluctance towards external operations, and the importance to include them in a larger diplomatic effort. This is part of a larger trend among Western populations that are increasingly critical of large military operations, including in France, where the 2020 edition of the Transatlantic Trends revealed signs of "war fatigue".

It is particularly the case regarding the French involvement in the Sahel, which has caused the death of over 50 soldiers since 2013 and costs over 1 billion euros per year to taxpayers, while the results are unclear to French citizens - the main issue for France is that of the cost/effectiveness ratio. According to a January 2021 poll conducted by Ifop, only 49% of respondents approve of the French intervention in Mali (32% disapprove and 19% strongly disapprove). By contrast, 73% of them approved in January 2013 (when Operation Serval began) The comparison between Afghanistan for the US and Mali for France has its limits, as Bruno Tertrais explains, but it is worth noting that this announcement comes only a few weeks after Joe Biden announced a full US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. President Macron intends to avoid falling into the same trap of an endless war, unwinnable and unacceptable to French citizens. 

What’s next? 

Emmanuel Macron announced the end of Operation Barkhane and "a profound transformation of (French) military presence in the Sahel", without giving further details on this transformation. So what could we expect? The new scheme will be determined by the end of June, following discussions with European, American and local partners. It will most likely imply a gradual decrease in the number of French military personnel, down to about 3,500 men within a year, then 2,500 by 2023, compared to the 5,100 deployed today. It will also imply the closure of some bases in Mali. More importantly, a change in doctrine is to be expected: large-scale operations that could expose soldiers' lives to ambushes or improvised explosive devices will be replaced by targeted operations by special forces, intelligence and air strikes. 

Above all, rather than a hard exit from the region, what is at stake is a slow transition from a traditional French security operation to a wider multilateral effort. France is particularly counting on the rise of the European task force Takuba. Established in Mali, in Gao and Ménaka, Takuba currently has 600 men, half of whom are French, as well as several dozen Estonians and Czechs, and nearly 140 Swedes. Italy has pledged up to 200 soldiers, Denmark about 100. This is, however, still far from the goal of 2,000 troops announced by Emmanuel Macron at the end of the N'Djamena summit in Chad in February. The French President can be credited with having imposed the Sahel issue on the European agenda, but concrete results have yet to be achieved, which is made harder by the reluctance of several countries, primarily Germany. Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, himself declared in an interview with French journal Le Monde in April 2021: "European states should be more committed. EU citizens must understand that Europe's security does not start on the shores of the Mediterranean, but 4,700 kilometers away." The lack of reaction from European capitals to the French President's June 10 announcement is not a good omen.

During his press conference, Emmanuel Macron also mentioned "our American partners, who have been playing an essential role since the beginning". Washington has until now provided Operation Barkhane with valuable intelligence and surveillance capabilities, thanks in particular to its drones, as well as air refueling and logistical transport. Following the French President's announcement, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declared that the United States would "continue to support" operations against jihadists in the Sahel.

Rather than a hard exit from the region, what is at stake is a slow transition from a traditional French security operation to a wider multilateral effort.

But Paris is struggling to get US support at the United Nations Security Council in its attempt to engage 2,000 additional UN peacekeepers in Mali as part of its exit strategy. Will Washington increase its commitment in the region? The answer may not come immediately, as the United States has launched a global posture review, which is not expected to be completed before the end of the year. In addition, President Biden has yet to appoint top officials for the region and to announce a long-promised Sahel strategy. 

The last pillar of the framework of the new strategy in the Sahel is local armies. Emmanuel Macron referred to countries of the region several times during his press conference, in an effort to hold them accountable. For the French Minister of Armed Forces, Florence Parly, "the time has come because the Sahelian armed forces are now in a better position to face their enemies". It is however difficult to assess progress made by local armies, and experts agree on the fact that despite significant financial efforts, the armed forces of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, which are among the poorest countries in the world, remain notoriously under-trained and under-equipped. And despite the anti-French sentiment among part of these countries’ populations, the announcement of the end of Operation Barkhane is causing concern. Incidentally, in December, the French Chief of Staff, François Lecointre, considered that the forces in Bamako and the G5 Sahel were not yet able to take over. Are they now, barely six months later? 

Nevertheless, we can expect the transformation process of the Operation to be slow and gradual. Beyond the obvious reasons related to the preparation of the aftermath, Paris has in mind the issue of foreign armies that could take advantage of the French withdrawal to further their interests in the region: "it must be done wisely so that the Russians or the Chinese do not come to occupy the void that we will leave" warned Général Lecointre. The concern relates in particular to Russia, which the French Minister of the Armed Forces indicates is seeking to impose itself and discredit France’s action in the Sahel. Moscow is especially close to Bamako: both countries signed a military cooperation agreement in 2019 and many of the ruling junta's members were trained in Russia. 

President Macron said he would give more details on the new framework at the end of the month. But chances are that many questions will still remain unanswered. 



Copyright: Daphné BENOIT / AFP

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