Caught in a costly counter-terror quagmire, France’s Emmanuel Macron is calling for help in West Africa. For six years, his soldiers have toiled to tame rampant Islamic extremism in the Sahel. It has been a bloody struggle. Last month, thirteen Frenchmen perished in an aircraft collision. The incident, Paris’s gravest military disaster in decades, has spurred Macron to once again seek international assistance. But with the body count building, support – both within Africa and outside – is proving hard to come by.
When President François Hollande deployed troops to the Sahel in 2013, his objectives were clear. France’s former West African colonies, overrun with Islamic extremists, needed help, and with swift action, the militants could be denied a dangerous regional foothold. His nation’s superior air-power soon turned the tide against the terrorists, who fled their urban strongholds in northern Mali.
But the fighters – some aligned with Islamic State and al-Qaeda – quickly regrouped in the sprawling Sahelian outback. From their rural hideouts, they have waged an ever bloodier insurgent campaign. Innocent civilians have, by and large, suffered the worst of the carnage. In the first half of 2019 alone, almost 170,000 were forced to flee their homes. Where French flags were once waved in welcome, they are now burned by locals incensed at the spiralling violence.
The shift in sentiment has rattled Macron. At a recent NATO meeting in London, the Frenchman demanded that West African counterparts curb the growing dissent or face a dialling down of France’s military commitment. “Do they want our presence and do they need it?” he asked pointedly, reminding regional leaders that French troops were fighting for their “collective security”.
But on the ground, there is an inescapable truth: local forces are bearing the brunt of the bloodshed. Since Operation Barkhane – the mission’s official designation – commenced, France has lost 41 personnel. That number is significant, but it pales in comparison to Malian casualties. In a single attack last month, 53 local soldiers were slain. Since September, at least a hundred have died.
The recent air accident – which claimed 13 French lives – has reiterated, however, the vulnerability of Macron’s troops. Not since a Beirut-based barracks was bombed in 1983 has the nation suffered so terrible a military tragedy. Now more than ever, the isolation of France’s 4,500 strong deployment – the largest of any Western nation in the region – is evident.
And the murky mission is growing ever more complex. What started as clear cut counter-terror operation has degenerated into an intricate war on savvy insurgents. The area’s rampant criminality, nonexistent rule of law, civil unrest, and the onset of battle-hardened militants from IS’s Middle East collapse has muddied an already confused campaign. It is an almighty endeavour for France to undertake alone – a fact not lost on Macron’s NATO allies.
They’ve alluded to assistance and offered heartfelt condolences for the dead, but none seem keen on meaningful intervention. The EU would, perhaps, dispute this, having pledged over €250 million to help train local forces. The UK, Spain, Estonia, and Denmark have also committed logistical support – but none have spilt blood-fighting the terrorists who, in theory, threaten them all.
Parisian lawmakers have not minced their words on the apparent injustice. Should security diminish further in the Sahel, Europe “will have two swords of Damocles over its head: terrorism and kidnappings, but also illegal immigrants since many are travelling through these regions,” French armed forces minister Florence Parly warned recently.
Financial support would be welcome – Operation Barkhane costs the French taxpayer some €690 million a year – but it is hard power assistance that her government seeks above all else. Macron is especially keen on EU allies committing special forces to the fight, units trained in the craft of counter-insurgency. It is, in the mind of the French president, Europe’s time to shape global security, filling the space of a retreating United States.
But West Africa’s instability is rooted in issues immune to military intervention. A functioning judicial system, effective and accessible healthcare and education, economic development. These are the keys to lasting peace, experts believe.
“[A main] priority should be addressing the socio-economic and political causes of the insecurity,” says Flore Berger, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The most effective way of doing this would be to allow short-term security objectives to give way to long term development, social and political efforts with the ultimate goal of fostering trust between the people and their authorities.”
Achieving this level of root-and-branch reform will take not just time, but concerted international action. France wants to coax the world into its West African conflict – but perhaps a focus on peace, not war, would serve the cause better.