GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 535, 13 June 2021

Sahel: End of France's military operation
Anu Maria Joseph

What happened?
On 10 June, French President Emmanuel Macron said: "The time has come; the continuation of our commitment in the Sahel will not be in the same way. Following consultations with our partners, we will initiate a profound transformation of our military presence in the Sahel. We will keep a counter-terrorism pillar with Special Forces with several hundred forces. And there will be a second pillar that will be cooperation, and which we will reinforce."       

He also said that those left with the French military would join with other European nations as a part of the Takuba Task Force fighting against the militants in the Sahel and the regional forces of Mali and Nigeria. The scaling down of troops would occur in an "organized way", and the details will be finalized by the end of June. Analyst Abudu Bulama Bukarti from Tony Blair Institute for Global Change said: "if France draws down its troops, it is going to create a security vacuum, because clearly the domestic troops and the UN peacekeeping missions don't have the required capacity to do the fight by themselves".

What is the background?
First, the political instability in northern Africa. On 3 June, France suspended its military support in Mali following the second military coup within nine months. President Macron said: "the long-term presence of France in external operations cannot be a substitute to the return of the state and services of the state to the political stability and choice of sovereign states". Fragile political regimes and local militaries are bogging down anti-terrorist operations. In the background, authorities in Mali and Burkina Faso are trying to negotiate with extremist groups. 

Second, France's role so far, and a new approach. France has been actively leading counter-insurgency military operations in the Sahel region since 2013. Currently, it has deployed 5,100 troops in the region as a part of Operation Barkhane. Now, France is attempting to increase the local capacity. On 10 June, the International Counter-Terrorist Academy backed by France was inaugurated in Ivory Coast. The academy expects to train security forces, including national counter-terrorism officials, troops, and magistrates, to bring a regional competition in the fight against terrorism. The academy would be the beginning of the transformation of France's counter-terrorism efforts where it urges for coherent regional cooperation.

The change is also due to anti-French protests. Demonstrations against the French military presence in the region have been taking place on a regular basis. Also the strains within France. France has lost 55 soldiers since 2013. Operation Barkhane costs more than USD 900 million per year alone for France. The deaths of soldiers and the high cost of operation made the mission unpopular in Paris.

Third, increasing anti-France sentiments and reasons behind it. There is growing suspicion of France's intentions as it maintains its strong cultural, economic, political and diplomatic influences, which adds hostility towards the French military presence in Sahel. During the NATO summit in London on 4 December 2020, Macron said: "I don't want to have troops on the ground in the Sahel where there is ambiguity towards anti- French movements." 

What does it mean?
First, Africa has to take more responsibility - both at individual and regional levels. Second, the rest of the world has to build capacity in Africa towards the above. Third, the long road ahead in fighting extremism and militancy in Africa. 

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