Allan Ohene MA fCMgr

Director of the Defence and International Security Research Department

Alexandre Dupont-Sinhsattanak

Defence and International Security Analyst

Operation Barkhane in the Sahel should focus on peace and stability despite limitations

A French led multinational intervention within the Sahel, a vast desert area in northern Africa, was launched in 2013 as a result of Islamic militant activity which likely posed a greater threat to the political stability of the region and possibly the West. A first operation, named Serval, succeeded in driving back the Jihadists within a month. In August 2014, a new operation, codenamed Operation Barkhane and based in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, was set as a counterterrorist military operation which sought to target Islamic extremists in Mali, Chad and Niger. The stability of this region was seen to be essential to the peace and security needs of France and its allies in Europe and America. The UN and the EU deployed peacekeeping and training missions, MINUSMA, EUTM Mali and EUCAT Sahel Mali. Most of these Sahel States were once colonized by France and this drive to achieve political stability was seen to be crucial for the continuity of the alliance between France and its former colonies. It was essentially in the interest of the French to take an active lead on this intervention.

In military terms, the French intervention has been highly successful in pushing back these Islamic militant activities to a larger extent, but more areas are still being infiltrated by different groups. Over 100 jihadists have been killed in a close collaboration between French and Malian forces in the month of January 2021 and more progress continues to be made despite the lack of infrastructure and the climate conditions in the Sahel. France and its European allies have strategically utilized this mission to afford regional groups such as Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adequate training and support to ensure a standby security readiness. The formation of the G5 Sahel coalition is also a step toward collective security in the region, with the participation of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad.

The success of this intervention should not be criticised on a large scale but needs to be seen as an effort to rid the Sahel of extremists who take advantage of the poor socio-economic background of these deprived communities around the region. Arguments have remained that it contributes to instability within the Sahel as a result of the French governments support to repressive governments.

The government of Mali has been quite unresponsive to the terror threat due to inadequate financial commitments and lack of resources to regions badly suppressed by the jihadist groups.

The French mission has also been compared to the forever wars of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan with no end in sight with support from America seen not to be particularly strong due to other threats to its own interests from China and Russia. Logistics and skills required may be found lacking within African States to confront this threat, but it is vital for the full cooperation of France and its major partners within the region: namely ECOWAS, G5 Sahel and African Union (AU). French self-interests and legitimacy within the Sahel region have been called into question as a result of the multitude of companies benefiting from its rich resources. Large swathes of recent protests in capitals such as Bamako, Mali, have also led to anti-French sentiments which in turn led the French President, Macron, to demand assurances from some heads of state at a G5 Sahel Summit organized in Pau, south-west of France, in January 2020 in which his tone of ‘summons’ was also criticized by some leaders. It was merely seen as an autocratic gesture. The leadership of these G5 countries have all voiced strong support for the French intervention in order to sustain peace and stability within the region despite the anti-French sentiments felt across their borders. More and more local people embrace an anti-colonial stance, accompanied by some criticisms in France. In fact, the death tolls of French soldiers (55 casualties since 2013) have a negative impact on the public opinion, while the cost of the operation (1 billion euros per year) participates to overstretch the French military. The current operation has limited tactical successes, with few military gains. Some point out to the inefficient use of the military force, due to the asymmetrical nature of the conflict.

Operation Barkhane has a long way to go in terms of its military mission of restoring peace and security in the Sahel against these jihadist groups. It should be given the full political support of all parties concerned to ensure the collective security of the Sahel and wider world in general is not at further risk of violence caused by extremist groups. France and its allies have seen its fair share of terrorism imported from these jihadists groups and the purpose of this mission must be seen to be critical for the pursuance of democracy in the region deeply underpinned by peace and stability. Socio-economic development for these affected states will ultimately thrive on the success of Operation Barkhane should this be given the unconditional legitimacy it fully deserves.