The New French Militarism In the Sahel

France’s new counterterrorism mission in the Sahel represents a stunning rejection of recent French policy toward the African continent, and with its commitment to actively hunting and killing terrorists, Opération Barkhane could radically alter security dynamics throughout the region.


French government officials recently unveiled plans to launch a new counterterrorism initiative in the Sahel, code-named Opération Barkhane. The mission consists of over 3,000 troops spread across five countries who, according to The Economist, will be supported by 20 supply helicopters, ten transport aircraft, six fighter planes, three drones, and 200 armored vehicles.

Although the bulk of the forces and equipment required for Barkhane are already on the ground in Africa, it would be a mistake to characterize the operation as a mere reshuffling of French military assets in the region. In fact, Barkhane represents a stunning rejection of recent French policy toward Africa, which in turn was meant to be a departure from France’s previous post-colonial posture toward the continent.

“The objective is principally one of counterterrorism,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Paris last month. “The aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffic to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups can rebuild themselves between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean.”

The operation is likely to deepen existing counterterrorism cooperation between France and Mauritania, as well as strengthen partnerships with Burkina Faso, from where France already carries out operations crucial to its counterterrorism efforts in the region.

Early indications are that approximately 1,200 troops will be based in N’Djamena, Chad, where France has maintained an uninterrupted presence since 1986 as part of Opération Épervier. Another 1,000 troops will remain in Gao, Mali, the launching pad for Opération Serval, France’s recently-concluded mission to drive Islamist rebels from northern Mali that began in January of last year.

Other troops will operate from of a constellation of forward operating bases and sites in Mali and Chad, as well as Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.

A New Chapter

Although exact details have not been confirmed by the French government, Niger figures to feature prominently within Barkhane; France recently began flying Reaper drones purchased from the U.S. in the country, and French special forces maintain an active presence in the country’s north.

In the long view of French foreign policy, Barkhane represents a reversal from its more recent ambitions. The 2008 French White Paper on Defense and National Security for example, expressed an eagerness to end Françeafrique, the term commonly used to describe France’s web of post-colonial (some would say neocolonial) policies toward its former colonies in Africa. But when Islamist militants in northern Mali launched an ambitious push into the south of the country in January 2013, France intervened with alacrity, entangling itself in a major military operation.

According to Michael Shurkin, a former CIA analyst who is now a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, the 2013 White Paper, drafted during Opération Serval, represents a “pretty specific renunciation” of its 2008 counterpart. “Barkhane is a new chapter of French policy in the area,” he told me.

This policy reversal, analysts say, stems from the fact that Opération Serval proved the value of having pre-deployed troops in the region.

“This is one of the lessons one can draw from the success of Serval,” said François Heisbourg a special adviser at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, a Paris-based think-tank. According to Mr. Heisbourg, France’s ability to get assets on the ground and in the right place within the first 48 hours was crucial in halting rebel incursions into southern Mali and driving jihadist rebels from their northern strongholds.

The French government, according to Mr. Heisbourg, has concluded that in order to intervene effectively in the Sahel, it needs to have a “regional coherence,” to its operations. Barkhane, in Mr. Heisbourg’s view, is an attempt to “systematize” what made Serval so effective.

Barkhane also offers insight into the extent to which France views jihadist groups in the Sahel as a threat to its own national security. According to several sources, the consensus within French policy circles is that if they give radical Islamist groups a chance to organize themselves in the Sahel, as they did in northern Mali, they become a much greater threat.

“I think they are convinced that had they not acted in Mali, it would have become an Afghanistan circa 1995,” said Mr. Shurkin. “They are trying to use the approach where it is more cost effective to put out the fire when it is still just a flame, rather than when the house is burning down,” he told me.

But as much as Barkhane is an attempt to expand the success of Serval, the new operation is in many ways an acknowledgement of its predecessor’s limits.

During Opération Serval, French forces were incredibly effective in driving Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies from Mali’s mountainous northeast. In tandem with Chadian forces, French special forces killed and captured hundreds of jihadist militants and uprooted a vast network of weapons caches, fuel depots and food stuffs hidden among the countless caves and grottoes that dot northern Mali.

But even the mission’s most ardent proponents concede that despite the impressive kill rate and destruction of enemy infrastructure, an unknown number of fighters likely escaped over the border to Niger, or further afield to sanctuaries in southern Libya.

As a result, Barkhane is an attempt to pivot from an operation designed to deal with a country-specific emergency in Mali to a sustained regional counterterrorism operation capable of crossing borders as easily as jihadist gunmen can.

That France already has an established military presence in the region should not obscure the fact that Barkhane represents a radical departure from its static, decades-long military engagement in the Sahel.

The charred remains of a weaponized Toyota pickup truck, also known as a “technical,” used by jihadists on the outskirts of Konna, Mali (Peter Tinti, 2013)

Playing Whack-a-Mole

Previous French counterterrorism efforts in the region have privileged training regional militaries over direct, kinetic operations. Barkhane, however, serves as a tacit acknowledgement that French special forces are going to kill people themselves, rather then relying on indigenous forces to do it for them.

“This is not training militaries like many previous CT [counterterrorism] efforts have been,” said Sergei Boeke, a Research Fellow at International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, based in The Hague. “This is hunting terrorists, which is what they do at the moment in Mali, but they are enlarging the area to Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.”

“Hunting terrorists” may seem like a straightforward endeavor, but doing so across thousands of miles of territory in the Sahel, analysts say, will be no small undertaking.

At the height of Serval, for example, France had 4,000 troops focused on northern Mali alone. Barkhane will consist of 3,000 troops covering an area that is not only several times larger than northern Mali, but considerably more complex when one accounts for the diverse “human terrain” encompassed by Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

“France is putting itself in a position where they are going to be actively playing whack-a-mole,” said Mr. Shurkin, “And there is a technical challenge to that.”

Several analysts interviewed for this article confirmed that in order for France to expand the scope of its counterterrorism operations across the region while maintaining a relatively light footprint, it would need to rely on aerial surveillance and signals intelligence. Yet sources familiar with French military operations in Mali’s extreme north maintain that it was human intelligence rather than signals intelligence that enabled French and Chadian troops to fight so effectively.

In an area as vast and socio-politically complex as the Sahel, aerial surveillance alone is unlikely to yield the actionable intelligence necessary to “expand” Serval across five countries.

“A drone can be a surveillance or attack platform, it’s one or the other, but not both at the same time, “ said Rudy Atallah, former director of African counterterrorism policy for the Pentagon and senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. “So there has to be a mechanism in place to put the whole operation together.”

Mr. Shurkin offered a similar appraisal. “Even if you are already in the region, troops aren’t going to be able to show up for a few hours, no matter what.”

Better than Nation-building?

Even if Barkhane proves effective in hunting terrorists across the Sahel, gauging its effectiveness, as with all counterterrorism operations, depends on which metric one chooses.

Barkhane, after all, was conceived in the afterglow of Serval, and it may be that French officials are overstating what exactly that mission achieved. While few would dispute the effectiveness of Serval in taking out an overt, organized aspect of Islamic militancy in the region, the extent to which Serval did anything to address the root the causes of militancy in northern Mali remains an open question.

“All the underlying problems in Mali and all the fractures in society are still there and still have to be addressed,” said Mr. Boeke, “And you can’t do that with a military.”

For their part, the French military brass are determined to define their mission within the strict confines of counterterrorism, leaving the rest of the international community to address the “root causes” of radicalism through a haphazard array of UN, EU and bilateral assistance programs.

“The French military makes it very, very clear that it [state-building] is not their business, and I give them credit for that because the US military often finds itself in that business and is really bad at it,” said Mr. Shurkin. “The French certainly have the where-with-all to evaporate any group of guys with any group of trucks,” he continued. “But what does that mean in terms of combatting radicalism?” Given the experience of counterterrorism efforts by Western militaries in other parts of the world, the possibility remains that limiting operations strictly to “hunting terrorists” could exacerbate, rather than eliminate the problem of insecurity in the Sahel.

With nation-building understandably out of fashion in the wake of the US-NATO odyssey in Afghanistan and unaffordable in the eyes of French government officials, France has concluded that an indefinite, multi-country counterterrorism operation is the best way for it to meet its security objectives in the Sahel. Whatever its effect on the underlying causes of radicalism in the region, one thing is clear: Opération Barkhane is likely to radically alter security dynamics throughout the region.

This piece was originally published on Beacon.

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