Africa

Mission impossible for France in the Sahel?

The death of 13 French soldiers in a helicopter accident in Mali on November 25 has underlined the challenges France's armed forces face in the Sahel, amid intensifying insurgent attacks and doubts about the effectiveness of its military allies in this vast region to the south of the Sahara Desert.

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The largest single loss of life for the countrys military forces since 1983, Mondays helicopter crash increased Frances death toll in its Sahel campaign to 41.

France started its military operations there in 2013, after Mali asked it to help regain territory seized by Islamist extremists who had hijacked a Touareg rebellion in the countrys northern desert regions the previous year.

The French military succeeded in this initial task – but the jihadist insurgency has since spread throughout Mali and across the border to Niger and Burkina Faso. Despite the presence of 4,500 French troops throughout the Sahel, escalating attacks have seen more than 170 Malian and Burkinabé troops killed since September.

Everything got worse

In a statement on Tuesday, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said that now is “not the time for questioning the merit” of Paris military engagement in the Sahel.

But some analysts have suggested that she doth protest too much. “Since the beginning of the French military involvement in the region, everything got worse,” Jeremy Keenan, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told Agence France-Presse. “There is no progress.”

The hard-left party La France Insoumise (LFI) expressed a similar view on Tuesday: the country needs “a serious and rational discussion to find a way out of a war, the meaning of which is lost on a large number of our fellow citizens as well as Malians themselves”, LFI MPs asserted in a public statement.

The following day, none other than Frances most senior military officer added fuel to this argument. General François Lecointre, the armed forces chief of staff, declared on France Inter radio that “we will never achieve a definitive victory” in the Sahel – although he insisted that Frances military operations there are “useful, good and necessary”.

Nobody trusts the G5 Sahel

Frances military presence in the region has by no means been unilateral; it has been working with allies on the ground since 2013. That year, the United Nations formed the MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali – one of the largest UN deployments.

However, it is also the most dangerous: more than 200 Blue Helmets have been killed in Mali. MINUSMA troops “are shot like hares”, François-Xavier Freland, former FRANCE 24 Mali correspondent and author of Mali, au-delà du jihad (Mali, Beyond Jihad), put it last year.

In an attempt to build a more long-term security solution in the region, the G5 Sahel bloc was transformed into a military alliance at Paris behest in 2017, bringing together forces from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

Yet, in light of its constituent armies mounting death tolls amid mushrooming insurgent attacks, it is clear that the G5 Sahel is “not working”, said Thierry Hommel, director of the Forum for West Africas Future and a Sahel specialist at Sciences Po University in Paris. “Its a coalition of armies that nobody trusts: theyre seen as inefficient and corrupt and benefitting from impunity, which is to say that they can kill anybody they like and get away with it.”

“Military figures tend to say the Chadian military is quite brave – the others tend to run away when terrorists come,” Hommel continued. “But often even the Chadian fighters dont have guns because of corruption in procurement.”

Indeed, the Sahel states score poorly in the most recent Transparency International Corruption Perception Index: for example, Chad is ranked at 165 out of 180, and Mali at 140.

No terror attacks in Europe have come from the SahelRead More – Source