France’s Gamble in the Sahel

Following an 18 month deployment in Mali, the French military Operation Serval is ending. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian explained during a national interview on Sunday July 13 that “Serval has accomplished its mission. Mali had to regain its integrity, and that’s been done.”  He added that since the beginning of the French military operation, territorial integrity has been restored, elections have been held at several levels of government, and, overall, the Operation achieved its aims. “It’s the responsibility of Malian authorities to continue to manage the democratic process,” Le Drian told journalists.

But while Serval is ending, a brand new French operation is beginning in the Sahel region. Well, in fact, not so much a brand new operation as a reshuffling of current forces and footprint in the region. With a projected 3,000 ground troops, and additional support from fighter jets, helicopters, unarmed drones and the cooperation of local military partners, France hopes to quell the terrorist threat in the Sahel. “There is a major jihadist threat from the Horn of Africa to Guinea-Bissau” – in particular in the northern areas of Mali, Chad and Niger – explained Le Drian, and “the French President wanted to see a reorganization of French forces to address what are perceived to be the current challenges in the region.” The new operation, Barkhane, will be launched within days, with counter-terrorism as its main goal, in partnership with five countries (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso.)

Operation Barkhane’s role will be to prevent “the highway of all forms of trafficking” between Southern Algeria and the northern parts of those countries from becoming a permanent location for jihadist groups to gain strength and organize. Le Drian explained that the French goal for this operation goes beyond ensuring the territorial integrity of African nations, and that there is a direct link between the security of France and what is perceived to be a growing hotbed of terrorism in the region.”The world is dangerous, especially at our own doors, and in particular at these doors just south of the Mediterranean,” Le Drian said.

Meanwhile, as the 1,700-strong Operation Serval winds down in Mali, a French officer was killed in a suicide attack on Monday. Two other soldiers were severely wounded in the bombing. This is the ninth French military death since the beginning of the Operation in January 2013. Jean-Yves Le Drian is expected in Mali mid-week to speak about the evolution of Operation Serval into its regional incarnation, Barkhane. French President Francois Hollande will be going to N’Djamena, Abidjan and Niamey in the coming days to formalize the launch of the new operation.

Given the recent suicide bombing that killed and wounded French soldiers in Gao, there is still a feeling that the Malian operation isn’t quite over yet, and, locally, some are feeling concerned about the rejigging of the French operation.  In the next few weeks we should know whether or not this redeployment of French troops in the rejoin has come too soon.