President Emmanuel Macron will travel to Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott on Tuesday for a summit of West African leaders to discuss their joint efforts to push back jihadists in the sprawling region.
Armed groups took over in the Sahel last year, intensifying attacks on Malian and Nigerian military bases.
France has responded by strengthening its anti-jihadist Barkhane force in West Africa – which now has more than 5,000 men and 600 recently added soldiers.
Earlier this month, the French military claimed one of the greatest successes of its seven-year campaign, with the murder of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abdelmalek Droukdel.
The main objective of the operation is now to find militants from the Islamic State of the Grand Sahara (IS-GS) in the border area shared by Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The IS-GS itself has fought groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, according to the French army, and has suffered heavy casualties in recent months.
“We have overturned the principle of uncertainty. We are the ones who are unpredictable for terrorist groups, “a senior French staff officer told AFP, asking not to be named.
“Today in the Sahel, victory is possible and this idea is gaining ground among our partners,” added a Macron adviser.
– “Limited impact” –
Despite the growing confidence of the French, many struggles are to come, according to specialists in the region.
Jean-Hervé Jezequel, analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), said it was “undeniable” that there had been “tactical” successes but that the self-congratulation could be premature.
“The French have already spoken like this on several occasions,” he told AFP.
A source with a humanitarian group in the region, who asked not to be named, told AFP: “There have been great tactical successes but the long-term impact is limited or even non-existent.”
In the immediate future, the Barkhane force left the areas where the jihadists had been defeated to concentrate on other places.
In doing so, they “left the field open to the very jihadists they had driven out,” the source added.
Macron said earlier this year that all options were on the table for the future of the French force, including withdrawal.
But now, officials in Paris point out that if French troops will not be there forever, it is too early to withdraw.
The governments of these countries, among the poorest in the world, are struggling to reinvest in the newly reclaimed territories and to win hearts and minds.
They must provide security, education, justice and basic services – “the military is just a tool” in a strategy to defeat jihadism, French Defense Minister Florence Parly recently warned.
– The G5 Sahel hopes –
The U.S. Department of State’s 2019 report on terrorism, released this month, noted the problems facing French allies, who have suffered a 250% increase in attacks since 2018.
“Partner countries remain firmly committed to the fight against terrorism but cannot afford to contain or permanently worsen the threat,” he added.
A key element of the French strategy lies in the so-called G5 Sahel force – a plan to create a joint force of 5,000 men bringing together Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
But the force lacks equipment, training and funds.
It “is not yet capable of disrupting the growing terrorist footprint in the Sahel but has potential as a coordinating mechanism,” according to the State Department report.
France has lobbied for military support from its European friends, and this is now bearing fruit.
A group of European special forces called Takuba is mobilizing to help the Malian troops.
A hundred Estonians and French will be deployed in the coming months, followed by 60 Czechs later this year and 150 Swedes in 2021.
dab-dla-ah-sjw / mlr / ri / je