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Sahel: Operation Barkhane will soon end, so what’s next?

By Benjamin Roger
Posted on Tuesday, 29 June 2021 15:50

France’s Operation Barkhane in the Gourma region in March. AFP

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has announced that the French military presence in the Sahel will undergo a “profound transformation.” Although he has not yet revealed any details about the next military operation, several avenues are being explored.

Eight years after its launch in August 2014, in the wake of Operation Serval in Mali, Operation Barkhane will soon come to an end. This military manoeuvre was considered to be France’s most important external operation of the 21st century and one that yielded mixed results.

Barkhane’s fate was clear over the past few months, as French leaders have been sending out a series of signals. On 10 June, France’s President Emmanuel Macron officially announced what he had already told several of his Sahelian counterparts in recent months.

This modified military presence in no way signals France’s disengagement. Our forces will remain committed to fighting against jihadist terrorism and training partner armies.

“We remain committed to the Sahel, but not through a constant framework,” he said at a press conference that had been organised at the Élysée Palace ahead of a G7 summit in Britain. “We cannot secure areas that fall back into anomie just because states decide not to accept their responsibilities. It is either impossible or a never-ending job. That is why, following consultations with our various partners, we will initiate a profound transformation of our military presence in the Sahel.”

Multilateral approach

According to him, this alteration will result in “the end of Operation Barkhane as an external operation” and the establishment of an “operation of support and cooperation with the armies of countries in the region that wish to do so”, whose aim will be to continue to fight against terrorism. Macron then added that the details and timetable of this new arrangement “will be specified in the coming weeks”.

So what is next? It is not yet clear what France’s intentions in the Sahel are. “We know what direction we want to go in, but we don’t yet know the specifics,” says an Elysée source. “Many things still need to be discussed with our various partners in the coming weeks.”

True to his multilateral approach, and in the hopes of mobilising international partners on the Sahel so as to appear to take a step back from the front line, Macron discussed the subject with his colleagues at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay on 13 June and then at the NATO summit in Brussels on 14 June.

According to various French officials, the US, Germany and European countries involved in the Takuba task force set up in 2020 all “fully understood” the change that had been announced and confirmed their desire to remain involved in the Sahel.

“The end of Barkhane is the beginning of something else”

On 16 June, a “politico-military consultation” between the foreign and defence ministers of France, the US, the UK and European Union (EU) countries took place via video conference. The aim was to begin to develop initial ideas on the post-Barkhane arrangements. The heads of state concerned validated the preliminary strategy during the most recent European Council meeting that took place on 24 June in Brussels.

What about the principal states concerned, the G5 Sahel countries? Florence Parly, the French army minister, had warned her Sahelian counterparts before Macron made his announcements. The G5 Sahel countries were also consulted on the continuation of operations and, for the moment, have not demonstrated “any tension”, according to a French source. “Afterwards, once we start to unveil the strategy, they will probably have comments about the evolution of the military operation,” she said.

In every exchange with their international and Sahelian partners, as well as with the press, French political and military leaders insist on one point: that France is not leaving the Sahel. “We will maintain a significant presence in the Sahel-Saharan area. We are staying, but in a different form. The end of Operation Barkhane is the beginning of something else,” the ministry of defence said.

“This modified military presence in no way signals France’s disengagement. Our forces will remain committed to fighting against jihadist terrorism and training partner armies,” says Françoise Dumas, chairwoman of the Commission de la Défense Nationale et des Forces Armées à l’Assemblée Nationale.

It is expected that no change will take place on the ground before September, for the more than 5,000 troops deployed in the Barkhane force. This is mostly to avoid the rainy season weather, which complicates any large-scale logistical operation, but also to have time to plan troop transfers in a dangerous environment.

Counter-terrorism

From September onwards, large-scale movements are set to begin to gradually switch to the new system.

Although the figures are not yet known, the tendency is “more towards a reduction”, as we are told in Paris. “There will be releases of rights of way, shifts to other locations and elements that we will simply remove,” says a source at the Hôtel de Brienne. “Other locations will remain or be reinforced.”

It is assumed that Niamey, the centre of French air operations in the region, will continue to store important military equipment, including drones and fighter planes. The N’Djamena base, that currently houses the Barkhane HQ, is not likely to be closing either.

The French authorities are maintaining their support for the United Nations Mission in Mali and the EU Training Mission in Mali, and have made counter-terrorism the ‘fundamental mission’ of their future operation, which will be centred around Takuba. Launched at the end of March 2020, it brings together European special forces that train and accompany the Malian armed forces, which are currently stationed in the Liptako region, near the tri-border zone (Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger).

Estonian, Czech and Swedish troops, who are based in Gao and Ménaka, are already engaged in operations with the Malian army. New European contingents – that France and its EU partners intend to maintain – are expected to be added to the force. Italian special forces – and their helicopters – are due to arrive in Mali by September, followed by Danish forces in early 2022.

Greece and Belgium have also expressed their interest in participating in this mission. “Takuba is intended to become a set of small special forces groups that provide confidence, reassurance, communication and intelligence to local forces. They have a multiplier effect on the forces. Today, there are just over 600 of them. The challenge is not so much to increase Takuba’s size, but rather ensure that the rotations are carried out effectively,” says a French military source.

Fears

Once Barkhane officially ends, some fear that holes will appear in the system. Since Takuba is only operating in Mali, what will happen in Niger and Burkina Faso, two countries that are plunged into mourning almost every week following attacks from jihadist groups? As such, nothing will prevent them from signing bilateral cooperation agreements, or even agreements within the framework of the G5 Sahel, with the countries of their choice.

In the meantime, Niger already has its own mechanisms in place as their special intervention battalions are receiving training from foreign partners (US, France, Belgium, Germany…). But Burkina Faso, which announced the creation of its special forces in early June, has not yet signed any agreement of this kind.

Finally, there remains a vital issue for the future French military presence in the Sahel, and that is the continuation of US commitment in the region. Macron and US President Joe Biden discussed this subject in Carbis Bay.

“The Americans have no issues, they will maintain their resources, especially in terms of intelligence and supplies,” said an Elysée source. On the other hand, US funding for the G5 Sahel is still blocked. This is because Washington still refuses to finance the Sahel organisation directly, as it would rather meet with each individual member state, for the moment.

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