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This is a war that escapes most radar screens. The French, whose troops have been fighting in the Sahel for seven years, ask few questions about their involvement. They should. In this crucible where insurgency, ancient local conflicts, fragile states, European hesitations and a shifting American strategy make an explosive mix, it is a war they may well be losing — or, in the best case, a war they may never win.

That is the sombre warning that the chief of staff of the French armed forces, Gen. Francois Lecointre, delivered a day after his troops suffered 13 casualties in a helicopter crash in Mali during combat operations. “We will never achieve final victory,” he told the public radio station France Inter.

Welcome to the unforgiving, thankless fight against terror in the Sahel, an African region south of the Sahara as large as Europe, where 4,500 French troops were deployed in January 2013 to prevent the capital of Mali, Bamako, from falling to al Qaeda. It is now the epicentre of the world’s fastest-growing insurgency.

Critics suggest that the French strategy focuses on security and the military response at the expense of civilian efforts to fix bad governance and corruption. But if nation building is tricky, it is even more so for a former colonial power — which is why France needs more help

- Sylvie Kauffmann

Two weeks ago, the French government decided to send 600 extra troops to the Sahel. Hardly a surge, but a clear sign that “avoiding the worst” is proving more and more difficult.

Bamako was saved, but since then groups linked to al Qaeda and the Daesh have spread to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso. After killing more than 4,000 people last year and displacing more than a million, these groups are now threatening four coastal West African countries south of Burkina Faso, a state that, as the International Crisis Group warned recently, may provide “a perfect launching pad” for operations in Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast.

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French soldiers patrol in the Terz valley, about 60 km south of the town of Tessalit in northern Mali. France has deployed some 4,000 troops to Mali, alongside a regional African force Image Credit: Reuters

French intervention

How did France end up intervening in a region that it left about 60 years ago as a colonial ruler? It all started with the Franco-British-led Western intervention in Libya, in 2011. The turmoil that followed the insurrection against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his subsequent death drew significant quantities of men and weapons from Libya to Mali.

In 2012, groups conquered Timbuktu and other towns in the north of Mali, imposing a regime of terror on the population. France rushed in troops, and French and local forces freed those towns, followed by a United Nations stabilisation force. But the insurgents, spreading like the desert, dispersed, moving to central Mali and further south. Niger was the next target, and then, in 2015, Burkina Faso.

As the Daesh struck in Paris with mass terrorist attacks in 2015, the counterterrorism narrative for sending troops to the Sahel to reinforce local national armed forces made perfect sense to French public opinion. Europe faced a huge refugee crisis. Helping local armies in sub-Saharan Africa to contain another jihadi threat seemed like a logical response.

Alarming picture

Containment has not worked, and France is asking for help. In a report released Feb. 10, “Militias, Armed Islamists Ravage Central Mali,” Human Rights Watch painted an alarming picture of atrocities still being committed against civilians in the area. French, UN and European troops are confronted with a morphing conflict: Groups like the Daesh in the Greater Sahara (I.S.G.S.) feed on local and ethnic divisions, which they exploit to recruit in areas where state structures have disappeared.

“True, the nations of Sahel have their own weaknesses,” one leader of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, admitted in an interview with Le Monde last week. “Islamist extremists have taken advantage of these weaknesses to build a genuine force, with operational capabilities superior to those of the governments.”

The collapse of some of those failing states is a risk now taken seriously. Sending 600 extra French troops is not meant as a game changer on the ground, but as a morale booster for a country like Niger, badly shaken by devastating attacks against its armed forces.

But here is the catch: In the process, France is seen as the former colonial power supporting weak regimes, or accused of covering up extortions by local regular armies. The rise of anti-French sentiment among parts of the local population and among intellectuals, notably in Bamako, led an angry President Emmanuel Macron to threaten to withdraw his troops if local leaders did not clearly state why such support was needed.

American exit

This is only one of France’s predicaments. Another is American assistance, which has been crucial for intelligence, surveillance and logistics, even though Operation Barkhane, as it is known, is French-led.

With the situation deteriorating, President Macron and the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, summoned the leaders of the so-called G5 Sahel (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad), to a meeting in France, where they decided on a new strategy to break the advance of the I.S.G.S. But French defence officials, who see the next six months as decisive, have been alarmed by announcements from the Pentagon’s African Command Centre on “adjusting its presence” in Africa.

French defence officials say this possible reduction of American involvement presents France with two challenges: First, withdrawing operational assistance (like drones) would break the military dynamics and create a political void that would be disastrous. Second, as one official told me, “Having the United States turn its attention elsewhere just as we are pleading with our European friends to send more troops certainly doesn’t help.”

Great-power competition

“Elsewhere” is China and Russia, which are ranked as top threats, in the current American defence strategy. The American defence secretary, Mark Esper, acknowledged that Washington was “adjusting numbers and how we allocate the personnel more toward global great-power competition” in Africa, “and maybe less toward counterterrorism,” but no decisions had yet been made.

Simultaneously, the French are trying to adjust their own strategy. They are keeping up pressure on their European partners, some of which — Spain, Britain, Denmark — already contribute to Operation Barkhane, while German troops train local armies. Estonia is sending 90 men, half of them for a special forces unit, and the Czechs are expected to send another 60 elite soldiers.

“What the French have been doing in the Sahel with only 4,500 troops is remarkable,” a former British senior defence official reckoned behind closed doors. But is this enough? Critics suggest that the French strategy focuses on security and the military response at the expense of civilian efforts to fix bad governance and corruption. But if nation building is tricky, it is even more so for a former colonial power — which is why France needs more help.

In Paris these days, there is a sense of, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

New York Times

— Sylvie Kauffmann is a columnist. She is the former editor-in-chief of Le Monde

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