Analysis

OPINION - Operation Barkhane: France’s Afghanistan

Given the cold winds blowing for France because of all anti-France sentiments, we could argue that France has simply conducted a maneuver ultimately aimed at making the Sahel (G5) countries conclude that “Africa without France is unthinkable”

Dr. Yasar Demir   | 17.06.2021
OPINION - Operation Barkhane: France’s Afghanistan FILE PHOTO

The writer received his Ph.D. in 2010 from Strasbourg University with his dissertation on the becoming of Hatay a Turkey province and France’s Levant Policy. He is the author of two books; “Fransa’nın Yakındoğu Politikası” (France’s Levant Policy) and “Suriye ve Hatay” (Syria and Hatay)

ISTANBUL

France recently announced, all of a sudden, the end of Operation Barkhane, which it had launched on its own initiative on August 1, 2014, with the goal of eliminating Salafi groups associated with Al-Qaeda; an operation that included the sub-Saharan countries, collectively referred to as the Sahel (Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger).

Following that, debates erupted on a variety of topics, ranging from the concept of “Françafrique” to French domestic politics, from the new foreign policy plan to be developed in light of the operation’s termination to rising anti-French sentiment in Africa.

As a result of the domestic and international reactions that rapidly came in response to this decision, there was considerable confusion about what exactly President Emmanuel Macron meant in his statement on June 10: “We will change our military presence in Operation Barkhane, which we have implemented as part of our foreign policy.”

The news was first announced under the headline “Barkhane military operations are coming to an end”.

At least, this was the take of the Liberation newspaper. [1]

But why was a statement made that could be interpreted as “France is withdrawing from the Sahel,” whereas comments made regarding the report discussed in the French National Assembly as recently as April 21 included statements such as, “It is a matter of honor for France to ensure security in the Sahel countries.” [2]

In order to better understand the discussions, it is helpful to refresh our memories regarding the events that led up to Operation Barkhane, as well as the operations themselves.

Terrorist acts perpetrated in France by people of African origin had been worrying many European countries, especially France.

The Malian government, on the other hand, had officially requested French support in response to the massacres committed in Mali by terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaeda.

Therefore, to answer this need and “eradicate terrorism at its source” while preventing its spread into Europe, an operation unit with over 5,000 active-duty troops, equipped with many fighting jets and heavy weaponry, was deployed in 10 base areas along the Barkhane Valley in the Sahel countries.

The Barkhane region alone covers a total area of 5 million 97 thousand km2. As can be seen, France’s claim of establishing peace over such a vast geographic area was overly ambitious.

Many operations were carried out with the participation of military troops from the relevant countries, as per the deal made with them.

In the year 2020 alone, for example, 128 operations were conducted.

In addition, a total of 18 thousand soldiers from other countries were also trained, but still, the desired outcome could not be reached.

In particular, the terrorist group Boko Haram’s attacks on civilians could not be stopped.

As a result, France failed to achieve any meaningful results in an operation that it launched on its own and came to rely on military support from its allies (Canada, Germany, Spain, Czechia, Lithuania, England and the USA) in order to maintain its military presence in the region.

Despite the substantial support given, it appears that the desired outcome could not be achieved, and France ultimately chose to significantly reduce its military presence in the operations, hoping that international powers in the region will now be increasingly more effective. [3]

In some ways, France aspires to establish a structure akin to the intervention force that the USA created in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks with the stated goal of fighting terrorism.

Considering the language used in the press about the recent developments, one gets the impression that France has decided to halt the Barkhane operations and withdraw its military.

However, the official statements emphasize that the French military presence will just undergo significant changes.

Accordingly, 5,100 military personnel will be gradually withdrawn from the operations, while French Special Forces units will remain.

At this point, many are wondering why France made such a hasty decision and what its goals are, given that the operations kept being praised until recently.

Barkhane being questioned

In fact, the first major crunch in Operation Barkhane came after the military coup in Mali, when the newly established government -which was not welcomed by France- announced that it had suspended joint operations with France despite the fact that it was Malian President Moses Traore who had first requested French military support.

In any case, France has suddenly found itself as an undesirable state in Mali, which is very significant to it.

This attitude from Mali has clearly sparked serious disturbances in the French military wing.

The second, and perhaps the most important, the factor is that overseas operations place a significant strain on the budget.

Within the scope of the operations, more than 33 thousand soldiers were deployed, 600 aircraft were used and approximately 1.3 billion euros were spent in 2016 alone.

In the light of the data presented at the Senate meeting of the same year, a cost of 37 billion euros was estimated for the next 10 years, an estimate made based on the expenditures made up to that point in time.

As a result, there is an annual expense of about 100 thousand euros per soldier in question.

An annual average of 1.4 billion Euros was spent on foreign operations until 2020, and how much more will be spent is unknown. [4]

Considering the social unrest caused by the economic contractions after the Covid-19 pandemic, many intellectuals and diplomats began to question, more loudly than ever before, why France should be the dominant power in Barkhane operations.

Despite all of the human resources and money spent, French economic losses have left Macron and his team deeply unsettled.

Another worrying situation is that, according to official numbers, more than 50 French soldiers lost their lives in the operations.

This figure does not include casualties from accidents.

It is now being questioned why, after eight years, no results have been achieved in the region despite the presence of a fixed military unit of 5,100 troops, an average of more than 15 thousand soldiers per year, sophisticated and heavy weapons, all kinds of electronic equipment, and aircraft, and despite the contributions of soldiers from the Sahel countries.

And considering, on top of that, the support from the Western allies, there is definitely a military failure in question.

Despite statements made by authorities that the French military carried out successful operations despite the tough conditions and that terrorism and immigration waves have been reduced significantly, many people know that this is not the case in reality.

The image of the French military power is severely tarnished when compared, for example, to the current status of military operations --such as Olive Branch and Peace Spring--carried out by Turkey under more challenging conditions.

We can see that Paris has come to the stage of making a decision about the Sahel by taking all these factors into account and that this decision is founded on two basic strategies.

First, feeling a strong necessity to respond on the ground to the harsh reactions directed against France in Africa, particularly by Sub-Saharan countries, France, in a way, wants to deliver the message: “Let’s see how you will do in our absence with all your ethnic, religious, and cultural divisions”.

In fact, a strategy along these lines was pursued in Chad during its internal strife in 1984.

Peace in the region was restored only after French intervention.

The second is the strategy of avoiding reputational damage by covering up this failure.

For this reason, France opted to involve European states in Operation Barkhane.

France is trying to ensure that other countries take responsibilities as well, using such pretexts as trying to curb migration to Europe and preventing the threat of terrorism to justify its moves.

France seems to have made progress with this method.

Countries such as Greece, Serbia, and Italy have already promised to send troops.

In the coming days, it will become clearer how successful this strategy will be.

Finally, the decision to reduce the role of France in Operation Barkhane and replace French troops with soldiers from Sahel countries with the support of the European powers has been met with different evaluations.

This decision was received with glee in certain African countries, particularly in anti-France circles.

A significant portion of the Malian population remains silent although Mali is the center of operations and was the primary reason Operation Barkhane was initiated in the first place.

Chad, too, took the new situation with remarkable composure.

Mahamat Deby, the son of President Idriss Deby, who was killed during the clashes with separatists several months ago, has not yet made a positive or negative statement.

France will undoubtedly interpret this silence as tacit consent.

Given the cold winds blowing for France because of all anti-France sentiments, we could argue that France has simply conducted a maneuver ultimately aimed at making the Sahel (G5) countries conclude “Africa without France is unthinkable”.

While doing so, France handles the issue from a variety of angles.

It is interesting, for example, that it was stated after the meeting with Chadian authorities that French military support will continue although Chad has also remained silent so far, while the discontent towards Mali has been expressed in sharper language.

However, the Sahel countries involved in Operation Barkhane were acting together to end terrorism.

As things currently stand, the cards are about to be reshuffled in the Sahel.

It is argued in this regard that Mali will seek Russian and Turkish support rather than French.

It is not difficult to predict how France will react to such an initiative.

It is also a matter of curiosity what outcomes this recent move by Macron will eventually produce.

Whatever they may be, the image of France withdrawing militarily before completing the operation will surely be tarnished all over the world, especially in Africa.

*Translated from Turkish by Baran Burgaz Ayaz

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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