Stuck In A Bloody Counter-Terror Quagmire, France Calls For Help In West Africa
On Monday night, France’s counter-terror stalemate in the Sahel struck a new low. Manoeuvring to engage militants on the ground, an attack helicopter collided mid-air with a troop transport chopper. Thirteen French personnel perished—the heaviest toll of a single incident in a generation. The tragedy is, for many, emblematic of France’s faltering West African mission, which, six years in, looks no closer to success.
When President François Hollande deployed troops to the Sahel in 2013, his intentions were two-fold: deliver France’s one-time colonial territories from extremism, while denying Islamists a fresh African foothold that could threaten Europe. Initially, everything went to plan. Pounded by French aircraft, fighters aligned with Islamic State and al-Qaeda were driven from their urban strongholds in northern Mali.
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But victory was short lived. Having regrouped in the region’s sprawling rural hinterland, militants launched a bloody insurgent campaign—one that has grown ever fiercer in recent years. Unable to stem the surging civilian death toll, Paris’s military presence has become deeply unpopular among locals. French flags were once waved in welcome; now they are burned in protest.
Local security forces have borne the brunt of the bloodshed. Since September, at least 100 Malian troops have been killed. In a single attack last month, 53 lost their lives. French casualties are small in comparison, but no less significant: 41 are believed to have died since Operation Barkhane—the mission’s official designation—commenced.
Monday’s air accident marked a historic low for France’s armed forces. Not since 1983, when 58 Beirut-based paratroopers perished in a bombing, has the nation suffered so costly a military catastrophe. Now more than ever, France’s desperate isolation in the region is clear to see. The UN runs a peacekeeping mission adjacent to Barkhane—code-named MINUSMA—but Paris’s 4,500 strong force represents the single largest international commitment in West Africa.
It is not a sustainable situation, says President Emmanuel Macron. The conflict has degenerated into a complex counter-terror fight, compounded by rampant criminality, civil unrest, and the arrival of battle-hardened recruits from IS’s collapse in the Middle East. Policing such a vast, turbulent area is simply beyond one nation, experts believe.
“The rise in strength of the jihadists is a reality we can no longer deny,” wrote Bruno Clément-Bollée, a former defence coordinator at the French foreign ministry, in Le Monde recently. “We seem to have no idea how to get out of the quagmire.”
It is a sentiment shared by many European leaders, who were quick to issue their condolences on Monday. Warm words mean little to the French—muscular, material support is what they need. Brussels might claim this commitment has already been fulfilled: over €250 million in EU funding has been pledged to train Malian forces, with troops from 22 member states involved in the programme.
France also receives logistical support from the U.K., Spain, Estonia, and Denmark. But no other nation has spilled blood in the pursuit of a peace they all benefit from, say Paris lawmakers. Should security diminish further in the Sahel, Europe “will have two swords of Damocles over its head: terrorism and kidnappings, but also illegal immigrants since many are travelling through these regions,” warned France’s armed forces minister Florence Parly in June.
Her government—which spends some €690 million a year on Operation Barkhane—wants to see EU allies bolster France’s flagging counter-insurgency efforts with their own special forces. This is Europe’s destiny, Macron believes: concerted military action, plugging the gaps of Trumpian America’s international withdrawal.
But Monday’s disaster will have done little to strengthen his pitch—no government is keen on body bags. Besides, the Sahel’s chronic instability cannot be solved by brute force alone. The rule of law, functioning health and education systems, economic development: these are how you achieve real peace.
A fresh, multi-faceted approach is therefore needed. But that’s never an easy sell. Sadly, until the Sahel’s militant extremism crashes onto European streets, little is likely to change.
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