French President Emmanuel Macron announced yesterday that Operation Barkhane, the French counterterrorism force fighting jihadis in the Sahel, will end in the first quarter of 2022. This follows a recent announcement that the French president plans to cut in half the French presence in the Sahel and reorganize what will remain as specialized regional forces, while also contributing to Task Force Takuba, the recently established EU force with a remit similar to that of Barkhane. These developments provide the occasion to look at the French military trajectory since 2013. So, too, does the fact that today is Bastille Day, the French national holiday.
The current French military trajectory in the Sahel dates from 2013. Responding to an appeal from the Malian government, France launched Operation Serval, intervening militarily to stop what was believed to be an imminent jihadi onslaught [PDF] on Bamako, the capital. At the request of the governments in the region, the French stayed, and Operation Serval, focused on Mali, morphed into the larger Operation Barkhane with a multi-country focus but still on jihadi depredations. French forces, numbering some five thousand, have operated primarily in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, with a major base at N’Djamena in Chad but with smaller ones elsewhere.
The French strategy has been to hold off the jihadis to allow the states in the region to develop the capacity to see to their own defense. The longer they stayed, the French sought to “internationalize” their involvement, seeking the participation of other EU states—the motivation behind Takuba—to complement Barkhane and MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping force in Mali, and emphasizing that the lead should be taken by the African governments under threat. Successive Washington administrations have supported the French approach and provided logistical assistance. The strategy has not been successful, with jihadi groups seeming to go from strength to strength. In 2021, the jihadi threat is more extensive than in 2013, causing anxiety even in Ivory Coast and Senegal. In hindsight, the French military presence has been too small in a vast region to be transformative. The governments which the French support are largely run by elites isolated from the populations they ostensibly govern, leading to coup attempts, including two successful attempts in Mali in the last year. Domestic security services are regularly accused of human rights abuses.
French political, economic, and, especially, cultural involvement in its former African possessions has been greater than that of the British in theirs. Successive French governments saw their influence over francophone African governments as a boost to their own international position, especially in multilateral fora characterized by “one country, one vote” systems, such as the UN General Assembly or the World Trade Organization. Nevertheless, those bonds between France and the francophone Sahel have visibly frayed since 2013, at least in part because the lack of French military success in countering jihadi terrorism in the region. African critics of their governments see collaboration with France as “neo-colonial” and accuse the French military of human rights abuses, mostly involving bombing.
In drawing down French military forces, Macron, facing stiff competition for re-election as president in 2022, is at least partially responding to the lack of public support for continued military involvement in the Sahel. Barkhane is increasingly unpopular, and tolerance for French casualties—which, in fact, have been few—is low. There are seeming parallels between the French in the Sahel and the Americans in Afghanistan which, however, should not be overstated. Nevertheless, in metropolitan France some critics call the French mission in the Sahel “a small Afghanistan.”
The issue of an Islamist presence in France is separate from the issue of the French military presence in the Sahel. How to integrate the country’s large Muslim population—and under what terms—is a major French domestic political issue that is likely to play an outsized role in the presidential elections. However, most of France’s Muslim population is of North African, rather than Sahelian, origin. While francophone Sahelians are prominent in France, especially in the arts and fashion, they are small in number compared to the millions of French of Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian origin and descent.
It is difficult to see how a reorganized and reduced French military presence augmented by international support can check jihadism in the absence of governance reform in the states under siege. The francophone states in the region are weak and getting weaker. It is difficult not to conclude that a French drawdown will accelerate jihadi domination of large parts of the Sahel, with increasing instability that will threaten Western, not just French, interests. Here, a parallel with Afghanistan could be apt, as American withdrawal is leading to increasing parts of the country falling under the control of the revanchist Taliban. However, the Taliban appear more coherent than Sahelian jihadis, which are often divided among mutually hostile factions. Their lack of unity could provide the Sahel with a reprieve.
Nolan Quinn contributed to this piece.