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Operation Barkhane: Success? Failure? Mixed Bag?

Operation Barkhane: Success? Failure? Mixed Bag?

France’s intervention in the Sahel region has been the subject of much controversy. Jonathan Guiffard takes a look back at Operation Barkhane, how it began and what its objectives were, not to judge or condemn, but to better appreciate its successes and its failures. This essay concludes our expert’s series on the region entitled “Sahel: An Expanding Crisis”. Over the course of our journey across the Sahel, we studied the mirage of Russia’s security overture, the evolution of negotiation strategies, the impetus for anti-French sentiment, the future of the crisis in Mali and Burkina Faso, and the risks of terrorism spreading to countries in the Gulf of Guinea. 

10 Years Later: Reflecting on the Sahel Crisis

On November 9, 2022, the French President announced that the Barkhane anti-insurgent military operation would officially come to an end. A few weeks earlier in Mali, the last remaining French soldiers had just left the country after handing over the keys of the Gao base to the Malian Armed Forces. For now, French troops are still in Niger (for logistical reasons and to honor cooperation agreements with Niger), but French authorities are busy crafting a new strategy in the region. One thing is certain: a 10-year cycle of French military intervention in the Sahel is coming to a close, and it's time to pause and reflect.

Broadly speaking, the military operation has been harshly criticized. Security conditions in Mali and Burkina Faso have worsened considerably, with a significant increase in violence since 2019. This has spurred a string of coups orchestrated by military and political actors seeking to distance themselves from France. Russia has taken advantage of the instability to dispatch its pawns to the area, fanning the flames of anti-French sentiment. The humanitarian situation is abysmal. The number of internally displaced people is skyrocketing and the risks of intercommunal civil war are increasing. The picture is bleak. And it is sometimes tempting to point the finger at the French government’s policies over the past decade.

But reality calls for a more nuanced analysis. Examining the roles, accomplishments, and shortcomings of the military operation can provide a better and more accurate understanding of what happened and serve as a foundation for the future discussions of all stakeholders.

The rationale for Serval A lightning-fast and effective reconquest

On January 11, 2013, French armed forces launched Operation Serval after a call for assistance from the president of Mali’s transitional government, Dioncounda Traoré, as a slight sense of panic started to take hold in Bamako, the capital. The military offensive was designed to stop the southward advance of jihadist groups (AQIM, Ansar al-Din, Ansar al-Sharia, MUJAO) which, at the time, were stationed in Diabaly, a three-hour drive from Sévaré and a six-hour drive from Bamako.

The military offensive was designed to stop the southward advance of jihadist groups, which, at the time, were stationed in Diabaly, a three-hour drive from Sévaré and a six-hour drive from Bamako.

Special forces from the Sabre task force were first deployed to carry out helicopter raids on advancing columns of enemy combatants. Subsequently, the French Air Force conducted airstrikes on jihadist strongholds throughout northern Mali, targeting the occupied cities and towns of Gao, Timbuktu, Kidal, Ansongo and Douentza. The air offensive put the enemy back on its heels, allowing ground troops to arrive relatively quickly (in military terms) to support the Malian army and begin to recapture cities to the north. Jihadist rebels suffered heavy losses under the double whammy of French firepower and years of intelligence gathering, and were forced to retreat to their refuge in the rugged badlands of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains (or Tigharghar in Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg).

French officials made the shrewd decision to pursue the fight in this very difficult terrain, and French troops—supported by Chadian units arriving from the east and the Menaka region— went on to obliterate jihadist strongholds and military capabilities. This effectively put an end to the threat posed by these groups, not only in the north but also in the south of the country. Despite the undeniable success of the military campaign, which lasted for two months and involved intense fighting, France proceeded to take its foot off the gas, and many jihadist leaders managed to evade capture and went into hiding.

Three months into the war, two significant structural challenges emerged for French and Malian officials that would have lasting political effects:

  •  The war involved a long and difficult manhunt for jihadist leaders who have a long history of operating in the shadows and who have been deeply embedded within Malian society since the early 2000s. In the spring of 2013, the nature of the war changed, and counter-terrorist operations became the priority. This type of warfare marked a significant departure from the “semi-conventional” war that had just ended and required specific capabilities, such as French intelligence, special forces, and air or logistical support provided by Barkhane, as well as the use of American and French drones. Intelligence sharing and cooperation from several countries, including Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria, were also crucial in supporting these efforts.

  • The humiliation suffered by Malian soldiers in 2012, who were either killed or forced to flee by rebel and jihadist groups, instilled a strong desire for revenge within an army that was struggling to curb violence against civilians. Shortly after the city of Timbuktu was liberated, a series of atrocities against Arab and Tuareg communities took place, further stoking fears of retaliation. These incidents prompted French authorities to strongly advise the Malian army against establishing a presence in Kidal. This symbolic capital was under the control of rebel groups, who had earned some degree of redemption by helping the French forces in their battle against jihadists. This political caution was perceived as a betrayal by the Malian authorities who mistakenly believed that France was playing both sides. This difference in analysis was also due to the fact that Bamako regarded rebel groups as terrorists, unlike Paris.

The rationale for Barkhane Racking up victories in the fight against terrorism

Before proceeding, let’s recall the context in early 2013 and the strategic vision that Paris had for the Sahel region:

  • France had seven hostages in the Sahel at the time. Its citizens, like those of all Western countries, were routinely kidnapped with impunity by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM);

  • France worked in close coordination with its partners in the Sahel to regularly thwart terrorist attacks on its diplomatic facilities in the region;

  • France was well aware that AQIM jihadists wanted to join the fight in the Libyan civil war ever since the 2011 intervention, and that northern Mali had fallen to extremist groups in 2012. This became especially evident when seeing numerous documented atrocities and the influx of new recruits by the hundreds into terrorist training camps, not to mention AQIM’s public declaration that France was public enemy number one;

  • This descent into chaos happened in spite of France’s repeated—yet unsuccessful—attempts prior to 2012 to draw the Malian president’s attention to the fact that jihadists were establishing a presence in Mali and using the country as a launchpad to export terrorism across the region, by subtly demonstrating the Malian government's own dealings with jihadist groups. Warning signs that were seen by all of France’s partners in the region.

With Mali on the brink of partition in 2012, the jihadist threat was considered to be very high, and everyone felt powerless as rebel fighters dug themselves into mountain hideouts. It is against this strategic backdrop that French authorities decided to transform Operation Serval into Operation Barkhane on August 1, 2014, the goal being to finish the job of tracking down jihadist leaders and prevent a resurgence of the violence and bloodshed that plagued the region in the 2000s.

Operation Barkhane was designed to not only provide continued support for the manhunt, but also to train the armies of Mali and Niger. The hope was also to create a buffer period capable of establishing the conditions for seeking a political solution through dialogue between the government and rebel groups at the source of the crisis in northern Mali.

Operation Barkhane was designed to provide continued support for the manhunt, and to train the armies of Mali and Niger.

Barkhane is often described as an operation without a clear objective: this is not the case. Barkhane was established with ambitious objectives that were based on a flawed and optimistic assessment of the political dynamics in the Sahel. However, the operation was hindered by the ineptitude of the political leaders in the region. This does not absolve the French political and administrative system of its own errors in analysis, assessment, or communication, but it is false to say that Barkhane was without a framework, objectives, or a role, or that it was intended to maintain an eternal and supposedly predatory French presence in the region. On the contrary, Barkhane quickly became aware of these shifting sands, and French authorities sought to extricate themselves from this situation as early as 2015.

Counterterrorist operations carried out between 2013 and 2022 allowed French forces (alongside troops from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) to neutralize (i.e. either kill, or arrest and hand over to local authorities) the emirs (“princes” or leaders) of AQIM’s four katibats (battalion), several dozen of their operational leaders, the emirs of Al-Mourabitoun and MUJAO, a large number of Ansar al-Din leaders, three of JNIM’s five emirs, and the emirs of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Although these military victories did not completely stamp out terrorism in the Sahel, they put an end to the actions of almost all foreign jihadist veterans from countries such as Algeria, Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and the Levantine states.

The long-term consequences of these counterterrorist operations are manifold:

  • There have not been any large-scale attacks in regional capitals since 2018 and the number of kidnappings of foreigners has significantly declined;

  • Al Qaeda was not successful in establishing a presence in Libya;

  • Algerian armed forces carried out effective counterterrorist operations and destroyed many Islamic extremist hideouts across Algeria;

  • The operational capabilities of these militant groups, along with their ability to orchestrate propaganda, have been crippled, leading to the formation of JNIM to consolidate the ranks of several weakened al Qaeda-affiliated groups under a single command;

  • JNIM has shown a willingness to negotiate with Mali’s ruling junta and cease its attacks on French interests, but only on the condition that France fully withdraws from Mali. This political concession underscores the group’s struggle to confront French forces.

A resurgent insurgency emerges from the ashes of Franco-Malian successes

However, this policy overlooked a critical development that gained more and more steam as the fight against terrorism notched up one success after another. The vanguard of foreign jihadists with ambitions for a global islamic state was able to transform itself into a large-scale local insurgency in the name of Islam.

The vanguard of foreign jihadists with ambitions for a global islamic state was able to transform itself into a large-scale local insurgency in the name of Islam.

The addition of hundreds of new recruits in 2012, who had returned to civilian life during the French intervention, armed and indoctrinated by the jihadist revolutionary discourse, allowed AQIM and Ansar al-Din to quietly organize insurgencies in southern regions (Katibat Khaled Ibn Walid), central regions (Katibat Macina), and in Burkina Faso (Ansarul Islam). In addition, a few surviving members of Al-Mourabitoun pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in order to support a highly radical Fulani insurgency in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

The allocation of significant French resources to succeed in the fight against terrorism, Barkhane’s emphasis on training armies in the Sahel, and the failure to properly anticipate the growing insurgency drove a wedge between Malian and French authorities, who were preoccupied with different wars. Malian authorities believed that the French military had the north under control since it only seemed focused, in Bamako’s eyes, on the jihadist leaders and rebels present in those areas. This freed up Mali to focus on other regions and authorities were able to see the emergence of insurgencies in the center and south of the country. Once again, however, Malian authorities resorted to using the wrong methods, such as committing human rights abuses against civilian populations as well as financing and arming militias (Dozo hunters, Dogon militias, recruiting members of Ganda Iso and Ganda Koy into their forces, etc.). This trend gained momentum in response to large-scale and systematic jihadist attacks on Malian, Nigerien, and Burkinabe military bases, beginning in 2016 and 2017.

On the political front, France played a critical role in maintaining stability by discouraging Malian authorities from retaking Kidal and acting as an intermediary between the rebel groups in the north and the Malian authorities. This helped to prevent the rekindling of tensions when the reconquest had just concluded. This approach provided a framework for political discussions, led by Algerian diplomacy, resulting in the signing of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in 2015. Given that the tension between the Bamako authorities and the rebel groups was the root cause of the crisis by allowing jihadists to establish a presence in a marginalized northern region, this agreement represents a significant political success. This foundation, though imperfect, aimed to address the political and economic disputes by reintegrating rebel fighters into society and fostering economic development in the region.

However, the agreement has come to a standstill. It has not been fully implemented and no longer appears to be a priority for the Malian government, which has adopted a vengeful stance. Without this agreement, there can be no disarmament, reparations, or possibility of reintegrating fighters who left to join the jihadists. And thus, there can be no path to reconciliation or national unity to expel the most radical jihadists.

The fight against terrorism also resulted in the formation of JNIM, a consolidation of multiple al-Qaeda-affiliated groups under a unified banner. This restructuring also carried a significant political message. Under mounting military pressure, JNIM has publicly called for the withdrawal of foreign forces, indicating that it would not target Europe and that it was ready to engage in dialogue. Although these political positions may serve as a tactical move to take advantage of the disarray in Mali and regain an advantageous position, they also demonstrate an unfavorable climate for the jihadists, who are forced to publicly acknowledge their difficulties under military pressure.

The fight against terrorism also resulted in the formation of JNIM, a consolidation of multiple al-Qaeda-affiliated groups under a unified banner.

A parallel can also be drawn in Niger, where the government has engaged in discussions with Nigerien fighters of the Islamic State. A series of military operations carried out between 2019 and 2021 not only dismantled this jihadist group but also created a favorable context for promoting dialogue with the fighters, aimed at their disengagement. Authorities are willing to negotiate an agreement to lay down arms with the jihadists, which underscores the stalemate of their cause and the current predicament of these Islamist groups.

France’s structural challenges

The escalating crisis in the Sahel and its spillover into neighboring Gulf of Guinea countries underscores the shortcomings of French authorities’ decisions and the challenges they have faced in achieving their stated political objectives. However, a comprehensive understanding of the situation requires taking into account the root causes of the crisis tied to the specific historical events that have shaped the region. With no other choice but to step in quickly, France found itself entangled in political and analytical obstacles. These obstacles can be categorized into three main groups.

First, French authorities got caught up in the internal politics of their partners, which limited their ability to effectively influence their actions and decisions.

First, French authorities got caught up in the internal politics of their partners, which limited their ability to effectively influence their actions and decisions. Three factors are key: 1) the lack of consensus between France and Mali on how to define the “terrorist” enemy, 2) the reluctance of political elites in the Sahel to acknowledge the pressing need to review their governance strategies, and 3) the negative impact of the ineffective practices of Sahelian armies in fueling insurgencies.

Second, France’s Sahel policy suffered from a lack of agility and responsiveness to an evolving crisis. This included the rapid endogenization of jihadism and its subsequent escalation into a widespread insurrection in 2015, the deployment of a counterproductive militia strategy in Mali and Burkina Faso, the unwillingness of Malian authorities to implement the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation, the challenges faced by Sahelian armies in strengthening their capabilities, and intensifying polarization surrounding the conflict within local communities, which was fueled by inflammatory political rhetoric.

French authorities were slow to recognize and admit their shortcomings. A healthy dose of self-criticism could have made France less susceptible to criticism and anti-French sentiment, as well as made it more difficult for Russian political influence to take root. The reluctance to engage in self-criticism was also reflected in the French administrative system’s struggle to make necessary adjustments to its military approach. As a result, conventional forces proved to be ineffective and costly in counter-terrorism operations centered on tracking down jihadist leaders. While this strategy may be debatable in substance, it was at least clear in its objectives.

While the subsequent deployment of armed drones allowed for the continued targeting of al Qaeda and Islamic State command centers in the Sahel, it turned out to be a tactical pitfall in the fight against the jihadist insurgency. The use of drones altered the perceptions of both allies (fueling the fantasy of French power) and enemies (making it easier to recruit people who viewed the French army as occupiers and destroyers).

Reluctancy to engage in self-criticism was also reflected in the struggle to make necessary adjustments to the military approach.

Last, we have learned that it is incredibly challenging to develop a comprehensive approach that addresses both short-term security measures and medium-term political, social, and economic solutions to address the underlying causes of the crisis. Economic and political factors (such as resource conflicts and underdevelopment in marginalized areas on the one hand, and poor governance, endemic corruption and a lack of political inclusion on the other hand) have long been identified as underlying causes of the crisis in the Sahel. However, French political authorities have underestimated the significant roles that these factors played in allowing jihadist groups to gain a foothold in the region and recruit from within local communities. Additionally, Sahelian officials have not effectively addressed or mitigated the negative impact of these economic and political factors. One of the challenges in the region, where poor governance is prevalent, is that the effectiveness of development aid, humanitarian assistance, and direct aid infusion (through NGOs, donors, or military support) in contributing to substantial social changes has also led to the delegitimization of the government. However, these efforts have not necessarily resulted in a more peaceful and cooperative society.

Complex crises require a humble and nuanced analysis

Evaluating the Serval and Barkhane operations reveals the intricate nature of the political, economic, and security crises in the Sahel. While the actions of the French government and military in the Sahel region are frequently the subject of criticism or exaggerated praise, their effectiveness cannot be assessed without considering the broader French context in which they were undertaken. This context presents obstacles and significant challenges that must be taken into account.

These conflicting demands showcase the persistence of a colonial bias, even among critics of French policy, whether they are French, Western, or Sahelian.

It is rather striking to observe the paradox being debated among the French public surrounding France’s colonial legacy. On one hand, France is criticized for its perceived neo-colonial interventionism in the Sahel. But on the other hand, many observers lament its lack of involvement in promoting the democratization of West African regimes. These conflicting demands showcase the persistence of a colonial bias, even among critics of French policy, whether they are French, Western, or Sahelian. French authorities lack the legitimacy, resources, and motivation to exert control, establish peace, and promote democracy in West Africa.

They act based on short-term interests, a commitment to democratic values, and a preference for long-term stability, but their decisions are heavily influenced by the ongoing challenges of the crisis and the political decisions made by their “partners” in the region. This approach to French decision-making may sometimes come into conflict with the need to achieve immediate results, but it is informed by a broader vision.

Sahelian political classes are well aware of this. They have been able to exploit the colonial bias and the short-term nature of French public policies in the region to their advantage. They are able to advance their own interests and achieve their goals more quickly due to the support of French leverage. France is not responsible for shaping local politics. As a result, it remains subject to ongoing political instrumentalization. When Sahelian political classes fail to achieve their goals, they blame France and hold it responsible for collective failures, ignoring the initial responsibilities (whether individual or shared) and roles played by the political actors involved in the crisis.

Lastly, two key points deserve to be highlighted in order to accurately analyze French policy in the Sahel over the past 15 years:

  • Decisions made by French political authorities are the outcome of complex internal processes within the French administration, which are influenced by power struggles and negotiations among various groups, including diplomats, military officials, intelligence services, interministerial structures, and their political leaders. To ignore this reality is a serious mistake as the Sahelian crisis has affected several generations of civil servants and political leaders, each with their own unique power dynamics, analytical frameworks, and constraints. While political decision-makers are ultimately responsible for the decisions that are made, French policy cannot be analyzed solely through this lens, and even less through the narrow perspective of individual actors who have been involved in these complex processes.
  • Modern military operations can be very complex which can lead, at best, to a loss of interest and, at worst, to fundamental misconceptions among political actors or populations regarding their true nature and effectiveness. To avoid falling into fantasies or conspiracy theories about the reality of war, a thorough analysis of the legal, logistical, and technical constraints faced by French armed forces is necessary, along with understanding the limitations of their equipment, the size of their force, and the practices and procedures of the army. This includes examining factors such as the length of assignments, rotation of personnel, rules of engagement, the role of politics in decision-making, coordination with national and international actors, and equipment availability and prioritization.

Thus, not only is the Sahelian crisis far from over, it is expanding. French authorities are formulating a new strategy to support their regional partners in facing the crisis, while also safeguarding their own security interests. Well aware of its overexposure in the region, France is working on rounding up more international support. No longer is it just France and countries in the Sahel who are showing interest in the region. All of Europe, Africa and the US are now aware of its importance.


We call for this dialogue to begin in earnest. But we stress that it cannot reach its full potential without involving our West African counterparts in each of these three circles.

The evaluation of this policy will continue to provide insights into the decisions made and the victories scored, but also the missteps and challenges encountered along the way. More nuanced and self-critical analysis of French policy in the Sahel region could be achieved through more robust dialogue among academic institutions (such as universities and think tanks), media outlets, and political branches. We call for this dialogue to begin in earnest. But we stress that it cannot reach its full potential without involving our West African counterparts in each of these three circles.



Copyright Image : FLORENT VERGNES / AFP

Griffon armoured vehicles of the Barkhane operation prepare to leave for the last patrol before the handover ceremony of the Barkhane military base to the Malian army in Timbuktu on 14 December 2021.

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