Assessment of French Intervention in the Sahel Region, 2013-2019
This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019. More information about the writing contest can be found here.
Despite the initial success of Operation Serval in 2013, French intervention in the Sahel region has now reached impasse. The already intricate situation is further complicated by France’s status as a former colonizer operating in the region. Understanding how France’s former colonial status translates into relationships between local communities, French troops, and armed terrorist groups will influence long term engagement.
In light of the growing instability in Libya, the enduring presence of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the territorial decline of the Islamic State in the Middle East, attention will increasingly turn to the Sahel as a crucial battleground in the fight against violent non-state actors. As such, the significance of recent French operations in the region cannot be understated.
Due its sheer scale, inaccessibility and geopolitical complexity, the Sahel provides optimal conditions that enable armed terrorist groups to prosper. It is no surprise, therefore, that the region has long served as an important theater for international counterterrorist operations. Launched in 2013 at the behest of the Malian government, the French-led Operation Serval marked an evolution in the level of international engagement in the region. Widely regarded as a military success, Serval was lauded for the rapid reaction and deployment of French troops and for meeting the ultimate objective of pushing back armed terrorist groups from the center of the country. Perhaps more unusually, it also received initial widespread praise from both local and international actors.
However, time has revealed Serval’s successes to be momentary. The operation did little to contribute to the overall stabilization and restoration of Malian state authority, with the security situation now widely accepted to have worsened since 2014. The decision to launch Operation Barkhane in 2014 confirmed that Serval, despite its strengths, had failed to address the underlying causes of the Malian conflict; causes which have only been compounded and exploited by the enduring presence of the armed terrorist groups and fighters traveling to the region from the Middle East.
Unlike Serval, which fielded small, highly agile forces that were tailored to the specific political goals of the intervention, Barkhane reflects a much broader regional counterterrorist effort. The declared aims of the operation are carefully aligned to those countries of the G5 Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) and emphasize the need for capacity building that enables local partners to secure their own safety independently. This close coordination with, and emphasis on, local state actors in the region signifies a clear departure from the operational independence of Serval. Barkhane has had some notable achievements in terms of both hard and soft power, however, what constitutes success at a broader strategic level remains unclear. The wide-ranging aims of the current operation are ambiguous and ill-defined, ultimately rendering France’s departure an uncertain prospect. This vagueness, when viewed alongside the complexity of the region, is a clear indicator of the impasse that lies immediately ahead of French forces.
Despite these foreboding circumstances, there are numerous factors that have influenced France’s decision to remain firmly engaged with the region. The initial framing of Serval in the context of the ‘War on Terror’ is crucial to understanding continued involvement. Since Serval’s launch in 2013, France has suffered numerous domestic terrorist attacks. France’s continued investment in tackling terrorism overseas thus represents not only an attempt to ensure regional stability within the Sahel, but a broader commitment to safeguarding its own citizens both abroad and at home. With the acknowledgement that a premature departure could in fact worsen the situation and create conditions that would facilitate the expansion of international terrorist organisations, the idea of a quick exit for France is therefore difficult to entertain.
In addition, by presenting intervention predominantly through the lens of a counterterrorist mission, France has distanced itself from the intricate political problems within Mali and allowed for the expansion of operations into neighboring countries. As such, a second motivation for remaining in the region becomes evident; Serval and Barkhane have enabled the establishment of French military bases across the region, placing it in a unique position amongst its allies. By redressing its diminished authority in the Sahel, these interventions have presented France with the opportunity to reaffirm its role as a key player on the international stage.
However, certain international observers have interpreted this strong narrative of counterterrorism as a thinly veiled attempt to detract attention from France’s actual aim of furthering its own national interest in the region, with clear inferences being made to a neo-colonial agenda. Although often crude and reductionist, such criticism does serve to highlight the symbolic connotations of a permanent French military presence in the Sahel for the first time since the end of the colonial period. Although theoretical discussions centered on neo-colonialism may appear ancillary to an assessment of military intervention to date, how these translate into dynamics on the ground will prove crucial to France’s ability to combat armed terrorist groups in the longer term.
The polarizing effect of French intervention on local communities is becoming apparent, demonstrating that it is not just foreign opinion that harbors skepticism about the enduring international presence in the region. Journalistic accounts from Mali have highlighted that, in the aftermath of Serval, questions were raised about continued Malian dependence upon the French state which, followed by Barkhane, has left “many in the region to talk of neo-colonialism.” Similarly, images from recent protests, show the disdain felt by certain portions of the Malian population towards continued French presence.Should the armed terrorist groups operating in the region harness this acrimony and exploit such narratives to motivate, recruit and encourage others to commit acts of terrorism, the mere presence of French troops may ultimately prove beneficial to those that they are there to combat.
Although the overall contribution of Barkhane to the stability of the Sahel is as yet unclear, France’s military commitment remains steadfast. When viewed in the context of its historic engagement with the region, the implications of a permanent French presence are vast. As such, a nuanced understanding of the different narratives at play will be increasingly important in determining whether French intervention is ultimately regarded as a success or failure.
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 Chalandon, M. & Gérard, M.
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