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Paul Taylor, Contributing Editor of POLITICS, writes the column “Europe At Large”.
PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron must be celebrating the headlines.
“Macron announces the end of a major military operation in West Africa” - “Macron announces the end of Operation Barkhane” – “G7: Macron announces a ‘in-depth transformation’ of the French military presence in the Sahel”
Despite the announcement made on the eve of the G7 summit, the meeting of the world’s seven main industrialized democracies, the reality is that France risks remaining stuck in the sands of West Africa for the foreseeable future.
But in the face of worsening instability in the region and growing unease at home, Macron has managed to create the impression of a radical policy shift.
By announcing “the end of Operation Barkhane as an external operation” and a “profound transformation” of the French presence, Macron sent multiple messages to his various audiences: French voters, Africans, the United States, European partners and leaders of the Sahel.
Less than a year before his re-election, Macron signaled to his domestic audience that he was starting to disengage from a long-running and unsuccessful desert war launched by his predecessor in 2013. He also pledged to pursue a more limited fight against “Islamic terrorism”. And blamed the putschists in Mali and, to a lesser extent, in Chad for failing to stabilize the region.
For French voters, many of whom tell pollsters that they no longer understand why French troops are still dying in the Sahel, it sounds like a welcome message that “our boys are coming home”, even though the presence of 5,100 people is likely to be reduced and adapted rather than withdrawn. If French forces suffer losses by election day, Macron will have at least partially avoided blame and deprived his opponents of a “troops out” angle of attack.
To Africans, who feel humiliated at having to rely on their former colonial master for security or angry that the French presence did not end the bloodshed, or both, Macron’s message was that France would not stay too long at his welcome. If their leaders are unwilling or unable to build legitimate and democratic institutions and restore public services in long-abandoned regions, Paris cannot do it for them.
“We cannot continue to stabilize areas that are falling back into anarchy because states decide not to take responsibility for them. It’s impossible, otherwise it’s a never-ending task, ”said the president.
To the leaders of recent military coups in Chad and Mali – two of the Sahel countries where French forces fight jihadist insurgents – Macron has clearly warned that they can no longer count on military support from Paris if they undermine their own country. institutions and fail to serve their people.
“The lasting presence of France in foreign (military) operations cannot replace the return of the State, public services, political stability and the choices of sovereign States,” he told them.
At the same time, Macron has sought to rally international support to continue a counterterrorism campaign in the region, where two separate coalitions of jihadist groups – one affiliated with Al Qaeda and the other pledging allegiance to ISIS – have extended their footprint and created parallel state structures. in areas long ceded by government forces.
Macron stressed that he would consult with American and European partners before modifying the French military deployment, thanked them for their continued support and pledged to continue leading the Task Force Takuba, which brings together European special forces in formation and accompanying a joint force of the Group of Five (G5). created by the Sahel states to fight the jihadists.
France’s targeted action against the guerrillas, extending over an area larger than the whole of Europe, is only possible thanks to American satellite intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance by drones, strategic airlift and in-flight refueling.
European partners, such as the UK, Denmark and Sweden, provide helicopter capabilities crucial for air mobility. Other Europeans, including the Germans and the British, have sent troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, and smaller partners, such as Estonia and the Czech Republic, have shown proof of ‘a very important symbolic European solidarity by sending special forces to Takuba.
The European Union provides military training for the Malian Armed Forces and the G5 Sahel Joint Force, as well as capacity building for the internal security forces of Mali and Niger. Paris is desperate to keep them on the ground, even as it seeks to lower its own military profile.
However, even though Macron’s decision is popular at home, there are several flaws in his crafty messaging.
How will he convince the new military leaders in Bamako or N’Djamena to reform their decrepit states, fight corruption and impunity, or hand over the baton to a civilian and democratic regime if they think that the French are in the process of disappearing anyway? Why aren’t the governments of Mali and Burkina Faso pursuing peace deals with some of the jihadist insurgents, defying French red lines, even if that means accepting de facto pockets of sharia in some areas?
How will Macron persuade reluctant coaxed European allies to join France-led military operations in the Sahel to stay the course if they see Paris putting most of its own troops out of harm’s way?
Why should US President Joe Biden, who made the uncomfortable decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by September 11, continue to provide military support to the French in West Africa, if Macron himself even describes the stabilization effort as, in essence, a cause loss?
France’s allies might be willing to stay in the region due to their own concerns about containing Islamic militancy, limiting its spread to the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic where they have economic interests, and preventing a possible wave of irregular migration to Europe.
But after a group of retired generals sparked controversy this year by claiming that the French state was subverted by Islamic radicalism and warning of a risk of “deadly civil war,” Macron is also facing challenge to sell this new policy to its own military. .
Far from being able to declare “mission accomplished” – as illusory as it may have been in the case of American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan – the French leader almost admits that Operation Sahel, despite tactical successes against the jihadists, is a failure.
This is not comparable to the military defeat in Vietnam or the ignominious withdrawal from Algeria that traumatically ended French colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s. But it is nonetheless a significant setback for France in his own “backyard,” which all of Macron’s skillful rhetoric cannot conceal.