France has announced a drawdown of troops from the Sahel region of West Africa, where it has been conducting counter-terrorism operations for the past eight years. Speaking recently at a news conference on international issues, President Emmanuel Macron said that the current mission, Opération Barkhane, would terminate “as a foreign operation” in the near future.
French military involvement in the region, which comprises several former colonies (including Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Togo, and Niger), dates in earnest from 1986, when Opération Epervier was launched to combat the invasion of Chad by Libyan troops. That mission was supposed to have been wound down when the two combatants settled their dispute in the early 2000s, but such is the strategic importance of Chad that the bulk of the French forces remained in place. In the early 2010s, groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda were becoming increasingly active in northern Mali. At the request of the then president, France launched Opération Serval in January 2013 to assist the Malian army in stemming the southward advance of Tuareg rebels and jihadist groups and prevent them from reaching the capital, Bamako.
In August 2014, Serval was renamed Barkhane, and its mission was expanded to cover the vast Sahel-Saharan region, roughly the size of the United States. With French support, the so-called G5 Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – created an alliance and set up a joint military force to respond to the deteriorating security situation. However, a growing groundswell of protest over France’s presence in Africa, as well as public and political discontent at home over foreign military engagement, prompted a reassessment of French involvement. A military coup in Mali in May this year – the second within ten months – finally prompted Mr. Macron’s announcement that France was suspending joint operations with the Malian army and ceasing its defense advisory missions.
More broadly, the president spoke of a deep-seated transformation of French military presence in the Sahel and the formation of a European military task force: Takuba (Takouba in French), named for the traditional sword used by Tuareg warriors. Following President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan this year and the hasty evacuation of Kabul last Sunday, the French drawdown in the Sahel may be a manifestation of what one diplomat describes as an overall shift in the Western counterterrorism paradigm, marked by a reluctance to put boots on the ground in foreign wars.
Article published in the August 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.