Eight years after France launched a military operation in Mali, the mission has expanded while the insecurity in the Sahel region has increased. But at the 2021 G5 Sahel summit this week, recent military achievements over the past year served as an incentive to continue operations and try to boost commitments from local governments and European allies.
A year ago, French President Emmanuel Macron and leaders of five Sahel countries that make up the G5 Sahel group concluded a summit in the southern French city of Pau with an agreement to strengthen their military cooperation against jihadist groups in the region.
This year, leaders of the G5 Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – once again held meetings with Macron and other European as well as US representatives. But the 2021 G5 Sahel summit in the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, was different in many respects.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, European and US participants joined the two-day summit, which opened Monday, via videolink. There were also changes in the objectives and strategies of some of the participants this year.
"The N'Djamena summit comes amid a very serious political, security and humanitarian context," explained Jérôme Pigné, a Sahel expert at the Institut Thomas More, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Eight years after France launched a military operation in northern Mali, the insecurity has spread across the vast, volatile Sahel region.
The number of civilians killed in jihadist attacks has increased, with more than 2,000 deaths recorded in 2019 and 2020, according to Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a US NGO specialised in data collection in conflict zones. The humanitarian situation in the impoverished belt between the Sahara and the African savanna has deteriorated with more than 200,000 internally displaced people in Mali and a million displaced people in Burkina Faso. More than 30 million people are currently in need of food assistance, according to aid groups.
Meanwhile coalition troop tolls are rising with 29 Malian, UN and French troops killed since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally. Since the January 2013 start of Operation Serval in Mali followed by the regional Operation Barkhane, 50 French soldiers have been killed in combat.
Drawing ‘more Europeans to the Sahel theatre’
Amid rising anti-French sentiment in the Sahel, Macron has two main policy objectives in the region, according to Pigné. The first is to reduce the Barkhane force, marking a major change in French strategy. At the 2020 Pau summit, "France announced a readjustment of its military positioning with the addition of 600 French soldiers," said Pigné.
Now, Macron is raising the possibility of a drawdown in what Pigné calls, “an appeal from the French leader to the presidents of the region to take greater control of their destiny and their ability to articulate their military operations. This is indirectly, a way of putting pressure on them," he explained.
Macron’s second objective, according to Pigné, is to engage France’s European allies politically and militarily through the new Takuba Task Force that assists Mali in its fight against jihadists. The French president wants to use the Takuba special forces "as a Trojan horse to draw more Europeans to the Sahel theatre", he explained.
Tactical and military objectives achieved
To convince reluctant allies to commit to the Sahel, Macron is relying on military achievements in the region over the past 12 months. "For a year now, we can say that the tactical and military objectives of the Barkhane force have been achieved because attacks by the Islamic State (IS) group have been contained. There were no complex attacks mounted," explained Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s specialist on jihadist movements.
The French military has also had some high profile successes in the region. In June 2020, French forces killed the leader of the notorious al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel. Months later, Bah Ag Moussa – a Malian jihadist who was on the US and UN terrorist lists – was killed in an operation involving ground troops and helicopters in eastern Mali.
Coordination between troops operating in the vast, sparsely inhabited region with porous borders has also improved, according to some security experts. "This was one of the objectives at the Pau summit," explained Nasr. That objective has been largely achieved, noted Nasr, particularly in a January operation in Mali’s central Mopti region that resulted in the killing of around a hundred terrorists and the arrests of around 20 jihadists along with the seizure of their arms and equipment.
Jihadist attacks against Malian troops have also declined from a peak in 2019, when Malian army bases were regularly attacked enabling jihadists to loot military arms and supplies.
Rising anti-French sentiment
Since 2020, Barkhane forces have also managed to gain the advantage in the internal war between al Qaeda and the IS group. "The fighting between jihadists has been so intense that the greatest human and material losses for the jihadists comes from other jihadists," explained Nasr.
But despite these successes, "jihadists are still present and have shown a form of resilience," noted Nasr. “Daily attacks against [UN] Minusma and Barkhane forces show to what extent these jihadists retain a real capacity for action and maps on the presence of the jihadists in the Sahel show that the terrorist network has expanded their operating territory."
The problem is “above all political", according to Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, director of the Marseille-based Research Institute for Develoment (IRD). “If the states in the region are not in a position to take over from the French army, you can kill all the jihadist leaders you want, successors will simply take over. The problem will not end – especially since some national armies commit excesses that legitimise jihadist groups and turn them into protection forces for civilians."
There remains the thorny question of the disengagement of the French army. A controversial airstrike in central Mali’s remote Douentza area early this year once again raised anti-French sentiment in the region. Local residents said the January 3 airstrike killed 19 civilians at a wedding ceremony. But Malian authorities and the French army denied the allegations, insisting that only Islamist militants were hit.
The Douentza strike reopened fundamental questions about the French military intervention in Mali. "After eight years, it’s necessary to question its objectives. Have they been achieved in the Sahel? For me, they have not," concluded Pérouse de Montclos bluntly. “In eight years, we have seen that the French military presence, which is provoking more and more negative reactions, has not changed the situation. France therefore bears direct responsibility for the deterioration of the situation."
This article has been translated from the original in French.