How France's narrow focus on a military solution in Mali has led to stalemate in region


On Monday November 25th 13 members of the French military were killed when two helicopters crashed in Mali during France's ongoing military operations there. The grim news sparked debates back in France about the country's military involvement in the Sahel region of Africa. But as Mediapart's René Backmann writes, the legacy of France's colonial past and the remnants of its post-colonial approach to the continent known as 'Françafrique' suggest that President Emmanuel Macron's government will be unable to see that military combat against jihadism is not the only response that is needed to tackle the region's instability.

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The death of 13 members of the French military in a collisions between two helicopters in Mali on Monday November 25th led to public mourning and much media coverage back in France. But will it finally start a public and Parliamentary debate about the wider objectives and strategy of Operation Barkhane? This is the name of France's intervention in Mali and the wider Sahel region in Africa which in August 2014 superseded Operation Serval, the military intervention launched by President François Hollande in January 2013.

This is far from certain. Indeed, it is perhaps even unlikely given the atmosphere of patriotic fervour created by head of state Emmanuel Macron, whose grandiloquence provided a rather awkward tribute following the tragic fate of these 13 soldiers.

On Thursday November 28th President Macron declared that he was ready to review all of France's “strategic options” in theSahel region of Africa, the lands between the Sahara to the north and the savannah to the south. Speaking just a week before the NATO summit in London he called for “greater involvement” from France's allies in the fight against “terrorism” in the region. He also said in the coming weeks he would be calling for a “detailed study from the government and our armed forces to look at the ways we intervene”.

A French soldier at Gao in Mali deep in reflection in front of the coffins of the 13 French troops killed in the country on November 25th 2019. © Reuters A French soldier at Gao in Mali deep in reflection in front of the coffins of the 13 French troops killed in the country on November 25th 2019. © Reuters
But the president made no mention of the serious questions raised by what one is obliged to call France's stalemate – or at least the beginnings of a stalemate – in the Sahel. While military action against the armed Islamic groups is legitimate and necessary for security in the region and Europe, is it enough? Are the jihadists the only source of chaos in the Sahel? And if there are other causes of problems on the ground, are we doing what needs to be done to identify and eliminate them?

The objective of Operation Serval, a military operation launched in January 2013, was in theory quite simple. It was at least clearly defined. It involved stopping the jihadist adavance which was at the time threatening Mali's capital Bamako, retaking control of Timbuktu, ending the establishment of terrorism in the north of Mali, and then transferring the role of stabilising the country to a reinforced Malian army and United Nations 'blue helmet' troops from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

The first part of the mission was accomplished six months later. Bamako was saved and Timbuktu was liberated from the jihadists. But the fight against the armed Islamist groups and their presence in the entire Sahel zone from Mauritania to Chad – an area as big as Europe – was far from being won. That led to the launch in August 2014 of Operation Barkhane – which takes its name from the word for a crescent-shaped dune in the Sahara desert – based on a partnership with the five countries in that region: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.

According to France's Defence Ministry, this operation's priority aim is to help the countries of the “G5 Sahel” to take ownership of the “fight against the armed terrorist groups”. Today more than 4,500 French soldiers, supported by seven fighter planes, around 20 helicopters, three drones, around ten transport aircraft and five hundred armed vehicles, make up the Barkhane force, which has four main bases – at N’Djamena, Niamey, Gao and Ouagadougou – and around ten advanced bases.

Over the course of time several foreign military detachments have joined forces with Operation Barkhane. The United Kingdom sent two heavy Chinook helicopters with their crews. Belgium, Norway and Holland have lent transport aircraft; and since 2018 the United States has had a base at Agadez in Niger from where armed drones are deployed. Close to 600 soldiers, supplied from 20 or so European Union countries, help with the training and organisation of the Malian army. And since August 2018 around 50 Estonian soldiers have been involved in the defence of the operational base at Gao on the gateway to the Malian desert, and this number will soon be doubled.

This Gao base will also be the headquarters for the coalition unit of European special forces that has just been announced. Based around the 'Task Force Sabre' contingent of French special forces, this unit will initially be made up of Estonian, Czech, Belgian and Norwegian soldiers. Over time though this new 'Task Force Takuba' – using the local Tuareg word for sabre – is due to contain soldiers from around ten countries in all and from the summer of 2020 their mission will be to advise units of Mali's army on combat operations.

On paper the Barkhane force also has the support of 5,000 soldiers from the G5 Sahel force and the 13,000 MINUSMA blue helmets. But the Sahel military coalition, which was set up by Mali and its four neighbours back in November with the support of Paris, is still not operational. That has been admittedby the foreign minister of Burkina Faso, which is the currently in the chair of the organisation's rotating presidency.

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