France and Operation Barkhane: looking for a transition

The French army chief of staff has affirmed his desire to limit the level of commitment of the French armed forces in the Sahel
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AFP PHOTO/ECPAD  -   A soldier from the Malian Forces (FAMA) talks to a soldier from the French mission Operation Barkhane (left) during a joint tactical coordination operation, in an archive photo

On December 10, the head of the General Staff of the Armies, General François Lecointre, made an official visit to the French forces of Operation Barkhane. During this visit General Lecointre met with the French newspaper Le Monde. The content of this interview has generated debate, since, on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the French operations Serval and Barkhane, the chief of general staff has affirmed his desire to limit the level of commitment of the French armed forces in the Sahel.  

At the request of the Malian government, following the coup d'état of 2012 and the expansion of jihadism in the north of Malian territory, France deployed Operation Serval, which a year later became Operation Barkhane, with a regional approach aimed at combating the cross-border jihadist threat. After eight years of mission, jihadist groups and their attacks have multiplied and spread from northern Mali to the three-frontier area, better known as Liptako Gourma (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger). Since the last few months, jihadist attacks have begun on other borders such as Mali's border with the Ivory Coast. Despite several tactical victories on the ground in the last year, such as the elimination of JNIM military chief Ba Ag Moussa, the terrorist threat is still far from being eradicated and Malian and G5 Sahel troops have plenty of time left to be autonomous on the ground. January 2021 will mark the first anniversary of the G5 summit in Pau, in which France renewed its commitment to the security of the Sahel by sending 600 more soldiers on the ground (from 4,500 to 5,100), to the area of Liptako Gourma.  

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REUTERS/CLOTAIRE ACHI - French President Emmanuel Macron addresses French soldiers at the Port Bouet military camp in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, at the end of December

Although General Lecointre is in favour of limiting the commitment, he is aware that the decision depends on the Executive Power, and that, by no means would it be a matter of leaving the field, but rather of a sustainable and intelligent evolution, so as not to be replaced by the Russians or the Chinese, as has happened in other African scenarios, for example, in the case of the Central African Republic with Russia. For all these reasons, taking into account that the local Armed Forces are not yet ready, France is perfectly aware that one cannot and should not leave yet, but the words of General Lecointre show France's intention to seek a transition strategy in order to be able to start a withdrawal of French troops as from the tenth anniversary.  

Since the beginning of the operation in 2013, 44 French soldiers have died on the ground and the operation costs around 1 billion euros per year. This prolonged effort is beginning to wear out the French, especially after this year when they have faced several challenges on the ground. Despite the fact that the Malian transitional government following the coup d'état in August has reaffirmed its consent and willingness to keep France on the ground, discrepancies between Mali's and France's strategy are beginning to emerge. In the absence of any improvement in the fight against terrorism, the Malian government is seriously considering negotiating with two of the leaders of jihadism in Mali belonging to the JNIM group, linked to Al-Qaeda. France has already expressed on several occasions that it considers it a mistake to negotiate with jihadists, whatever group they may be.  

Both French society and the political elite consider France to be the only country truly committed to the security of the Sahel, and feel that this is in spite of the assistance provided by some European partners. While it is true that France is the country with the most troops on the ground with combat capabilities and mandate, the European Union as a whole is increasingly involved with Sahelian security. A few weeks before these statements by General Lecointre, the EUTM-Mali training operation was renewing its mandate until 2024, increasing the troops assigned to the operation from 600 men to 1,100, with the aim of reaching 1,230 by 2022. This operation, which began in 2013, has decided to make a quantitative and qualitative leap in its scope and ambition. The EUTM troops will begin training for the first time in the field instead of just in the academies, accompanying the FaMAS in their operations. On the other hand, EUTM operations in the five G5 Sahel countries are intended in the medium term to improve interoperability between local armies and be able to better deal with the cross-border threat posed by jihadism in the Sahel region. This training mission could become one of the relays of Operation Barkhane once it acquires a form of executive mission with a combat mandate on the ground.  

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AFP/SEBASTIEN RIEUSSEC - G5 Sahel Headquarters

The other alternative, a favorite among the French, is to strengthen the Takuba task force. This unit began with an elite group of special forces from France and Estonia who intend to train and accompany Malian forces in combat. This mission, which began in July 2020, is beginning to see its first satisfactory results with a light reconnaissance and intervention unit trained and with autonomous operational capabilities. This 'task force' is an attempt to Europeanize Barkhane by deploying European troops on the ground, but with a combat mission and not exclusively for training, as in the case of the EUTM. Several European countries have already decided to join this initiative, including the Czech Republic and Sweden, which will be the next to deploy on the ground. Others such as Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain, Holland, Norway, Italy, Germany, Portugal and Greece have already committed to sending special forces to the field, although some of these countries still need confirmation from their governments. The Takuba force is under the umbrella of operation Barkhane and is coordinated, therefore, with the forces already deployed in the area: the European missions EUTM and EUCAP, the G5 Sahel troops and MINUSMA.   

Macron is also waiting for a possible reaction from the United States on the ground. Last October, it was announced that the U.S. command in Europe and Africa would be merged from a 2-star to a 4-star general. This change reflects the United States' interest in the Sahel that could be continued and specified during Biden's new presidency.  

In conclusion, there is no dichotomy for now; although Takuba and EUTM could replace and/or complement French efforts in the medium term, in the short term France will have to remain on the ground.