In the run up to the G5 Sahel summit in N'Djamena, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed the French government’s desire and goal for the summit to mark a “diplomatic, political and development surge”. Held on 15 and 16 February, the event itself was like a balance sheet of activities in the region. For its part, France emphasised the key role of Sahel actors and the importance of bolstering regional military, political and diplomatic organisation through more decisive development initiatives. At the same time, France sees it as critical to enhance regional cooperation with the Gulf of Guinea – an area beset by the very real danger of jihadist expansion – and with North Africa, particularly Morocco and Algeria.
The summit involving the heads of state of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad came amidst growing signs of a downsizing of France’s military presence in the Sahel. Just over a year ago, the Pau summit marked the beginning of a new phase in relations between Paris and the Sahelian capitals. Politically, this first summit was a means to bring new legitimacy to France's political and military presence in the Sahel. By inviting African presidents to a gathering in Pau, in the Atlantic Pyrenees, France was sending a message it wanted its African partners to recognise the centrality of the French presence in the Sahel and the importance of Barkhane counter-terrorism operations. This involvement of African leaders should particularly have put to rest anti-French conspiracy theories and allegations of collusion with jihadists seeking to destabilise the region to gain control of its resources.
Militarily, the Pau summit legitimised a stronger French presence (a further 600 soldiers deployed to the region, marking an increase from 4,500 to 5,100) and focused military action on Liptako-Gourma, the “three-border region” spanning Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. French military involvement was also integrated into the Coalition for the Sahel framework, which is based on four pillars: strengthening the capabilities of G5 Sahel states’ armed forces; fight against terrorism; support for the return of the state and administrations in the territory; and development assistance.
Operation Barkhane has undoubtedly helped curb regional mobility of armed groups, despite an increase in insurgent activities in the rural parts of Liptako-Gourma. In 2020, French military operations resulted in the elimination of jihadi leaders in the Sahel, including Abdelmalek Droukdel, Emir of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Bah ag Moussa, one of the main commanders of Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), an Al-Qaeda affiliate in the central Sahel. The military objectives recently achieved by Barkhane, as claimed by the Minister of Defence, Florence Parly, weigh heavily on the balance of relations with regional and European partners, who are called upon to be more broadly and directly involved in the crisis as "the war against terrorism is not only a French war, but a war of Europe and its allies." In spite of the tactical successes in recent months, the political and economic costs - over one billion euros in 2020, 76% of public spending on military operations - of Operation Barkhane remain significant, and it is increasingly hard to convince public opinion that the loss of life – fifty-seven French soldiers killed since 2013 – is worth it.
In the short-to-medium term, the disengagement of French forces deployed as part Operation Barkhane seems unlikely, but a partial adjustment of the strategy on the ground is deemed a priority. This should result in the withdrawal of the additional soldiers deployed in early 2020 and increased use of remote warfare operations, with more recourse to intelligence, special forces and drones. In principle, all decisions about the need to restructure France’s military presence in the region have been postponed until the next summit. However, these dynamics are key to understanding the diplomatic pressure France is putting on its European allies to take part in the Takuba task force, which is largely made up of special forces units and will accompany, advise and assist local armed forces in the fight against jihadi groups. Similarly, the efforts to empower the G5 Sahel Joint Force, which is now part of the joint command mechanism for military operations, are also designed to achieve a more shared approach.
While the killing of several jihadi leaders has signalled a change of pace in military operations in the Sahel - one hundred and twenty-eight combat operations conducted and several hundred fighters killed in 2020 – the local populations are deeply divided as to the French presence in the Sahel. France has been accused of interfering in the political and strategic choices of state actors in the Sahel. Governments in the region are limited in their options to negotiate a political solution to the crisis through dialogue with the insurgents largely because of French opposition – as confirmed by President Macron’s words during the N’Djamena summit – despite widespread support for this among political and social actors in Mali and Burkina Faso. The French position on this issue was quite nuanced during the Pau summit and did not explicitly exclude dialogue with Al-Qaeda linked groups. However, recent statements excluding any possibility of negotiating with 'terrorists' – and particularly with jihadi leaders Amadou Kouffa and Iyad ag Ghali – seem to be more clear-cut, although the top military authorities stress the decision "lies with Malian politicians". Secondly, the inability to ensure the safety of civilians in the face of armed violence by Salafi-jihadi groups, self-defence militias and national armies is reflected in the growing resentment of local communities for French forces. Beyond largely baseless conspiracy theory-like accusations, the 'collateral effects' of counter-terrorism activities in the Sahel - only a few weeks ago, guests at a wedding in a village in central Mali were allegedly bombed during a strike that was part of Operation Barkhane - damage Paris' legitimacy in the area and increase the political costs of France’s involvement. The urgency of partial disengagement from the Sahel is also tied to these aspects.