France Seeking To Internationalize Its Anti-Terrorist Mission In The Sahel

France is set to transform its current anti-terror operations against Islamist groups in the Sahel region of West Africa. The mission, which will replace the current Operation Barkhane, will be broader in its international effort and incorporate a new blueprint in its design.

“This transformation will translate into a model change” which will operate with “a new framework,” President Macron said in a press conference on Thursday, June 10th. It will mark the “end of Barkhane as an external operation”.

Macron said that France could not work with governments in the Sahel that continue to negotiate with Islamist militants. Last week France suspended its joint military operations with Malian forces and stopped providing defense advice because of the ruling junta’s failure to provide guarantees to hold free elections. Macron further stated, “We will have to hold a dialogue with our African and European partners. We will keep a counter-terrorism pillar with special forces with several hundred forces… and there will be a second pillar that will be cooperation, and which we will reinforce.”

At present, France has 5,100 troops in the region as part of Operation Barkhane, operating across Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Although the aim of the operation is primarily counterterrorism, France has also pursued a holistic approach across military, economic and political dimensions to bolster security capabilities for the aforementioned countries.

Despite this, the region is experiencing an unprecedented wave of violence, with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2020. United Nations figures reveal that the number of attacks has increased fivefold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger since 2016; the attack on a small village in Burkina Faso’s Yagha province last week, which left 132 dead, typifies this trend. In all, violence across the Sahel has forcefully displaced some 2 million civilians. Other exacerbating factors, including extreme poverty, food insecurity, COVID-19 and climate change are further worsening the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

As conditions across the Sahel deteriorate, Operation Barkhane is becoming politically unpalatable in France as its increasingly viewed as a long-running resource drain with no clear end in sight. The transformed Operation Barkhane should allay some of these concerns. At Thursday’s press conference, President Macron insisted that Operation Barkhane would be replaced by “a military operation and an international alliance, associating countries in the region with all our partners, strictly limited to the fight against terrorism.” The broadened coalition will unload some of the burden.

Although additional details are to be announced in the coming week for the timeline of the troop drawdown, a conspicuous trade-off is already apparent. President Macron must address the humanitarian needs within the Sahel region without isolating his own citizens with expensive and over-extensive security operations.