As France considers reducing force in Sahel, jihadist threat increases

During a grueling, weeks-long mission in northern Mali, French soldiers faced a familiar threat: extremists trying to impose the same strict Islamic rule that preceded France’s military intervention here there. over eight years ago.

The traumatized residents had scars on their shoulders and back from the lashes they suffered after failing to submit to jihadist rule.

“We have witnessed the presence of the enemy trying to impose Sharia law, prohibiting young children from playing football and imposing a dress code,” said Colonel Stéphane Gouvernet, battalion commander for the recent French mission dubbed Equinox.

France is preparing to reduce its military presence here in the Sahel region of West Africa, the vast area south of the Sahara Desert where extremist groups are fighting for control. In June, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the end of Operation Barkhane, France’s seven-year effort to combat extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State in the Sahel region of Africa. . France’s more than 5,000 troops will be reduced in the coming months, although no timetable has been given.

Instead, France will participate in a special forces unit with other European countries and African countries will be tasked with patrolling the Sahel.

The move comes after years of criticism that France’s military operation is just another reiteration of colonial rule. But the change is also occurring against a backdrop of worsening political and security crisis in the region. In May, Mali experienced its second coup in nine months.

Although Malian government officials were able to return to some towns once overrun by jihadists, for the first time since 2012, extremists amputated hands to punish suspected thieves – a return to Sharia law imposed in northern Mali before. the French military intervention.

There have also been spikes in extremist attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger, raising fears that the reduction of French forces will create a security vacuum in the Sahel region that will be quickly filled by the jihadists.

“If an adequate plan is not finalized and put in place, the pace of attacks on local forces could accelerate in the region over the coming weeks as jihadists try to take advantage of a security vacuum,” said Liam Morrissey, Managing Director of MS Risk Limited, a UK security consultancy firm operating in the Sahel for 12 years.

While France has spent billions on its anti-jihadist campaign, dubbed Operation Barkhane, Sahel experts say it has never devoted the resources necessary to defeat extremists, said Michael Shurkin, director of global programs at 14 North Strategies, a consulting firm based in Dakar, Senegal.

“They have always been aware that their forces in the Sahel are far too undersized to accomplish anything like a counterinsurgency campaign,” he said.

France has several thousand troops covering more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of terrain in the volatile region where the borders of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso meet. Alerts about attacks are often missed or dealt with hours later, especially in remote villages. The operations rely heavily on the French air force, which carries out air strikes, transports troops and delivers equipment. The desert is harsh with temperatures reaching nearly 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), exhausting troops and requiring additional maintenance for equipment.

The Associated Press spent the days leading up to Macron’s announcement accompanying the French military to the field, where pilots navigated hostile terrain in total darkness to recover troops after a lengthy operation.

Some soldiers wondered if the fight was worth it. “What are we doing here anyway?” Asked a soldier after Macron’s announcement. The AP does not use his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Others have recognized that jihadists are a long-term threat. “We are facing something that will last for years. For the next 10 years, you will have terrorists in the region, ” Colonel Yann Malard, commander of the air base and representative of Operation Barkhane in Niger, told the PA.

The French strategy has been to weaken the jihadists and train local forces to secure their own countries. Since his arrival, he has trained some 18,000 soldiers, mostly Malians, according to a spokesperson for Barkhane, but progress is slow. Most Sahelian states are still too poor and understaffed to provide the security and services that communities desperately need, analysts and activists say.

State forces have also been accused of committing human rights violations against civilians, which has heightened mistrust, said Alex Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.

Since 2019, more than 600 unlawful killings have been committed by security forces in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger during counterterrorism operations, according to Human Rights Watch. Frenchman Barkhane has also been accused of possible violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, after an airstrike in Mali in January killed 22 people, including 19 civilians, according to a report from the maintenance mission. of the peace of the United Nations in Mali.

The soldiers agree that there are limits to what can be achieved militarily and without political stability in the Sahel, the jihadists have the advantage.

“We do not have an example of a great victory in the counterinsurgency, and it is difficult to achieve that in the current environment, because for an insurgency to win, it just needs to stay alive,” he said. said Vjatseslav Senin, main national representative of the 70 Estonian soldiers fighting alongside the French in Barkhane.

Some of those living in the Sahel fear the hard-won gains will collapse too quickly.

Ali Touré, a Malian working in the French military base in Gao warned that “if the French army leaves Mali, the jihadists will enter within two weeks and destroy the country”.