Victory remains elusive in France’s desire to quell the insurgency in the Sahel

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The murder last week of one of the main commanders of Al-Qaeda in Africa was celebrated by France as an important victory in its war against terrorism in the Sahel. But seven years after its first intervention in Mali to quell an Islamist insurgency, Paris is mired in a seemingly endless campaign.

Despite 5,100 French soldiers in the region and 14,000 peacekeepers in Mali, the violence that started in the north of the country has spread, killing thousands of people and displacing millions in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Frustrated with persistent violence, protesters flooded the streets of Mali’s capital Bamako in January calling on the French army to leave its former colonies,

“Since then, France has made more efforts to let people know what they are doing, to make more communications so that we can see what they are doing,” said Mathias Hounkpe, head of the Mali national office. for the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

But despite attempts to communicate achievements such as the murder of Abdelmalek Droukdel, JNIM leader linked to al-Qaeda, Mr. Hounkpe said that Malians were not listening.

“It seems that the American murder of [Osama] Bin Laden but [France] will not get all the attention because the population is currently focusing on something else, “he said.

The French announcement was made as 20,000 people gathered on Friday in Bamako to protest the government, chanting slogans not only about violence, neglect and corruption. Re-elected in 2018 for a second five-year term, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita presided over the spike in unemployment and the government’s withdrawal from parts of the country where insecurity is rife.

Thousands of people demonstrated last Friday in the Malian capital to demand the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita © Baba Ahmed / AP

The success of the French operation against Droukdel, a 50-year-old Algerian who was directly linked to Al Qaeda leaders in the Middle East, marked a high point for Operation Barkhane in France.

The campaign follows the French army’s intervention in northern Mali in 2013 and is the main driver of France’s efforts to stabilize the Sahel region of West Africa. But the indefinite deployment has started to lose public support in France, particularly after setbacks, including a helicopter crash that killed 13 French soldiers in Mali last year.

Observers in Mali said there was no evidence that Droukdel’s death would significantly limit the diffuse terrorist networks that still operate with relative impunity, regularly killing soldiers and civilians.

The French counter-insurgency effort faces a complex and changing collection of extremist groups and ethnic militias in an area the size of Western Europe. The groups include JNIM Droukdel and the Islamic State aligned with Isis in the Grand Sahara. Fighters easily cross national borders, quickly mobilizing on motorcycles to crush targets and disappear into the bush.

In recent months, the Malian government has said it is open to negotiations with extremist groups, something France and other Western allies have long opposed.

French officials have preached an approach that includes governance and development alongside military intervention, noting that his troops operate at the invitation of regional governments. But France has been criticized in some quarters for failing to understand the local dynamics in a region it once ruled.

A French flag is hoisted in a desert camp in Gao, in the north of Mali, as part of Operation Barkhane © Benoit Tessier / Reuters

In the context of Operation Barkhane, the French army aligned itself at different times with different ethnic militias, some of which were involved in the massacre of civilians. Other citizens who collaborated on Operation Barkhane found themselves targeted by extremists.

“You need a local approach but through the militias it has done more harm than solutions,” said Mohamed Ould Mahmoud, spokesperson for CMA, an alliance of rebel groups whose members have joined. to extremists to capture the north in 2012 but signed a peace agreement in 2015. ”Since then, the State of Mali has become increasingly weak and terrorists have filled this space. ”

Dougoukolo Alpha Oumar Ba-Konaré, a professor at the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations in Paris, admitted that the counterinsurgency effort had made limited progress.

“I don’t think we are far from victory,” said Ba-Konaré. “I know the French are. . . calling upon anthropologists or historians and various specialists in the region. But, again, understanding the people of a region within a region does not mean that you are actually able to get them to join you. ”

France’s ambassador to the UN, Nicolas de Rivière, told the Security Council last week that the international community could succeed in stabilizing the Sahel “if it acts in a united and determined manner.”

But after years of trying to convince EU neighbors that the Sahel poses a serious threat to Europe of migration and terrorism, France remains by far the biggest contributor of troops and resources.

French troops work alongside the so-called joint force of the G5 Sahel, composed of soldiers from Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Chad, which has finally started its operations but remains under-equipped and dependent international partners.

French troops in Ndaki, Mali: 5,100 French soldiers are operating across the Sahel as part of the operation © Benoit Tessier / Reuters

President Emmanuel Macron summoned leaders of the five Sahel countries in January to the city of Pau, in southwest France, to deal with lingering tensions over counterinsurgency operations and to demand that leaders ‘State disavow anti-French demonstrations in the region.

The tone of the summit and the decision to call African leaders in France, rather than meet with them in the region, were a mistake, said a senior Western official in Bamako.

“If you really want a concerted effort, if you don’t want to just show your strength, why not come here to the region?” Said the official, asking not to be identified.

“The root cause of France’s problems here is that they did not find the right formula for digesting their colonial history – this Francafrique, this painful decolonization, this slow progression,” added the official. “There is this feeling that France is constantly shooting itself in the foot. “

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