August 5, 2021

The end of the “Barkhane” operation in the Sahel: save-who-can or rebound?

Analysis. By announcing, on June 10, “A profound transformation of [la] military presence [française] in the Sahel “ Without however drawing the precise outlines, President Emmanuel Macron has raised more questions than he has opened up new avenues to get this region out of the spiral of violence that has plagued it for almost ten years.

Since the launch of the “Serval” military operation, ordered in 2013 by François Hollande, France has been on the front line in the Sahel on each of the three “Ds” that structure its regional policy: diplomacy, defense, development. At the time, Mali threatened to implode under the combined effect of Tuareg independence movements, quickly overtaken by jihadist organizations linked to Al-Qaida or the Islamic State organization whose cross-border agenda was not limited to to the partition of the country. The French intervention had then avoided the worst. Too exposed to the French strike force, the “armed terrorist groups”, the GATs, according to the terminology used by the Ministry of the Armed Forces, had known the rout. They had dispersed in the sands. Before being reborn.

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The question was already being asked why France was intervening so massively in the Sahel. According to the official argument put forward at the time, the aim was to prevent the jihadists from seizing the capital Bamako and transforming Mali into a training ground for apprentice suicide bombers destined to strike European countries. This explanation left more than one skeptic. Controlling the desert half and very sparsely populated of Mali, where the independence cause and mistrust vis-à-vis the central state offered fertile ground for the growth of GATs, is one thing. It was less for them to drive out the state than to occupy the vacant space. But conquering “useful Mali”, densely populated, hostile to secessionist theses and less permeable to the most radical Islamism, was a challenge beyond their reach.

Turn the page

Should the French soldiers have returned to their barracks once this first part of the conflict has been won, rather than “To settle in a long-term operation” ? No one can rewrite history. Still, President Macron wants to turn the page “Barkhane”. Far from being contained, jihadist violence has spread to neighboring states of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, and is now splashing the northern areas of several countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea. Some 5,000 French soldiers deployed in an area measured in millions of square kilometers cannot do much about it. “The continuation of our commitment in the Sahel will not be done on a constant basis”, therefore warned the head of state.

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