Despite the initial success of Operation Serval in 2013, French intervention in the region is now at an impasse. The already complex situation is further complicated by France’s status as a former colonizer operating in the region. This distinction will influence the long-term engagement between local communities, French troops and armed terrorist groups.
Many significant developments serve to make the Sahel region a battleground in the fight against violence and radical non-state formations. For example, the growing instability after the military coup against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Mali, the latest terrorist attack against some French aid workers in northern Niger, the enduring presence of Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria and the notorious territorial loss of Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Following the 2015 terrorist attacks in the capital Paris and 2016 in Nice, France stepped up its operations in the region. The state of mind that underlies operational initiatives lies behind the words of French Prime Minister Jean Castex. “It is most likely the same hatred, the same cowardice, the same inhumanity that was at work in Niger and the Bataclan (a music hall targeted by a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015)”, said Castex, commenting French operations.
Time has proven that Operation Serval was only temporarily successful, as it did not contribute to the overall stabilization and restoration of the authority of the Malian state. It is well known that security in Mali is at its worst since 2014. In fact, France’s decision to launch Operation Barkhane in 2014 confirmed that Operation Serval, despite its strengths, had failed to succeed. tackle the underlying causes of the Malian conflict.
Unlike the failed Operation Serval, which deployed small, highly flexible forces tailored to the specific political objectives of the intervention, Operation Barkhane reflected a much broader regional counterterrorism effort.
The declared objectives of the operation were carefully aligned with those of the G-5 Sahel group and underscored the need for capacity building that would allow local partners to independently ensure their own security. This close coordination with local state actors in the region meant a clear break with the functional independence of Operation Serval.
Operation Barkhane has seen notable achievements in terms of hard power and soft power, but what constitutes success at a broader strategic level remains unclear.
The broad goals of the current engagement are ambiguous and ill-defined, which ultimately makes France’s departure an uncertain prospect. This vagueness, seen alongside the complexity of the region, is a clear indicator of the impasse that immediately awaits the French forces.
The 2019 helicopter crash in northern Mali that killed 13 French soldiers, the biggest one-day loss for their military in nearly four decades, dealt yet another blow to morale for an operation that has already been the subject of severe criticism from members of the G-5 Sahel. The assassination by French soldiers of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Algerian leader Abdelmalek Droukdal, however strengthened the spirit of the troops and increased the reputation of Paris in the war on terrorism.
Recently, eight aid workers from the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), a French non-governmental organization (NGO), and their guide were killed by gunmen in a deadly attack in northern Niger. The French government immediately called it a terrorist attack. In a grim speech in an airport lounge at Paris Orly airport, Castex said that “the victims have come to Niger to do good, and they have met with evil.”
Reports from Mali point out that, in the post-Operation Serval period, questions were raised regarding Mali’s continued dependence on the French state and the neocolonial impacts of Operation Barkhane on the entire country. region.
Likewise, recent protests in Mali prove that anti-French sentiment has peaked in parts of the local and Nigerian populations.
What did not go well
Although Operation Barkhane’s overall contribution to stability in the Sahel region is not yet clear, France’s military commitment remains steadfast.
Seen in the context of its historical engagement with the region, the implications of a permanent French presence are vast. As such, a nuanced understanding of the different narratives will be increasingly important in determining whether the intervention is ultimately viewed as a success or a failure.
Now, after French troops engaged AQIM in northern Mali, Paris has taken military control of the country.
After defeating the invaders, driving them out of the province of Timbuktu and other northern towns, and disarming rebellious factions, the French army banished the Malian army from Kidal, the central town in the northern region of Azawad. The territory is claimed by various rebel groups, but it is under the de facto control of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). France allowed the rebels to occupy the region, reorganize themselves and later gain a place at the post-war negotiating table.
France realized that it could no longer bear the military costs of the Malian war and persuaded the United Nations to send peacekeepers to the country. In December 2013, Paris announced a reduction from 60% of its troops deployed in Mali to 1,000 by March 2014.
Some interim peace agreements were made but quickly broken. In August 2016, attacks on foreign forces continued. More than 100 peacekeepers have died since the deployment of the UN mission to Mali in 2013, making it one of the deadliest places served by the international organization.
As in many other African regions, the territorial borders of the Sahel were drawn in order to benefit the interests of the colonizing countries rather than take into account social and ethnic cohesion or the needs of the peoples concerned. Postcolonial borders in countries like Mali, Niger, Libya, Chad and Sudan cross directly between clans and ethnic groups.
These ethnic ties across the region have, however, contributed to the development of networks that now offer significant economic opportunities, including cross-border smuggling of migrants. In this context, the Sahel is increasingly a direct threat to the national security of neighboring countries, such as Algeria, which has become a transit hub for migrants entering Europe, due to the wide use scale of violence, illicit cross-border flows and stability of failed states like Mali and Libya.
The interests of the European Union in the Sahel region are historically shaped by economic and security issues. While most of the countries in the region are too small or too poor to become important markets for the EU, they hold wealth in terms of natural resources. For example, around 70% of Libya’s oil production went to Europe, while three quarters of French energy comes from uranium mines in northern Niger.
France is indeed one of the most active EU countries in the Sahel due to its historical and colonial links with the region, but it is no longer its gendarmerie.
Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, the fall of the overthrown autocratic regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the start of the Malian conflict in 2012, the Sahel region is increasingly perceived by the international community as an area of concentration of group activities. armed radicals such as AQIM, the Ansar al-Din Front, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Boko Haram. Thus, from a security point of view, the Sahel region has become a laboratory for experimentation with “light” counterterrorism for the Western powers.
* North Africa Expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM)