Earlier this year a Nato power sent in fighter jets, helicopters, special forces and a Reaper drone on a mission against an Islamist terrorist group. At least 30 militants were killed. This was not Iraq, nor Syria, it was not Yemen nor Libya. The French military were operating in the Liptako-Gourma zone – a sparsely populated hilly region straddling Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The conflict in the Sahel region of Africa is for much of the world a forgotten war. And yet, last year alone, 4,000 people were killed in terror attacks, and by this spring France will have more than 5,000 troops fighting alongside local forces. The Sahel is considered the world’s fastest growing Islamist insurgency. It’s taking place in a huge region which contains some of the world’s poorest countries and is a crossing point for migrants trying to get to Europe.
Violence has spread since Islamists launched a terror campaign in Mali in 2012. It has since spilled over into Niger and Burkina Faso, and is dragging in Chad and Cameroon, displacing hundreds of thousands from their homes. This year there are worrying signs that the conflict could even spread to some West African coastal states.
The crisis has fuelled a resurgence of local conflicts, and comes after decades of poor governance and neglect of rural communities. This, along with climate change, has helped create an alarming spike in food shortages especially in central Sahel – Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. This deadly confluence of events means hundreds of thousands of people are displaced.
In 2013, France deployed about 2,000 troops to help the Malian Army, saying they were required to prevent the creation of an Islamic State as seen in Iraq and Syria. By 2019, 4,500 French troops were on the ground, but stretched thinly over a massive area covering more than five million square kilometres, they were unable to prevent the insurgency growing and forming alliances.
Among the groups active are ‘The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara’ which operates in north-east Mali, ‘Ansarul Islam’ in northern Burkina Faso, and ‘Boko Haram’ which has spread from north eastern Nigeria into Niger, Chad, and northern Cameroon. All are loosely affiliated with Islamic State or Al Qaeda. The United Nations now says the levels of terrorist violence are ‘unprecedented’ and ‘devastating’. One of the worst cases came last December when an attack on an army base in Niger killed 71 soldiers. In January, another 89 were killed. There were also numerous attacks on civilians.
This prompted French president Emmanuel Macron to convene a summit and ask for international support to help what is called ‘Operation Barkhane’. He believes the region is part of a new European defence policy seeking to prevent countries to the south collapsing into chaos with millions heading towards EU states. He said with French forces having already suffered more than 40 fatalities it was time for other European countries to step up.
He had few takers. The UK has several dozen personnel on the ground along with three helicopters which help ferry the French troops around. Denmark has sent a few aircraft and about 70 of its military, and the Czech Government has now said it will send 60. This limited response led Macron to order in another 600 soldiers along with 100 armoured vehicles, bringing troop levels to 5,100.
Most are targeting the border region linking Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, joining forces from the G5 Sahel countries – which include Chad, and Mauritania. The five support the continuation of the French engagement even as portions of their populations bridle against what some see as a neocolonialist project.
Shortly before the Macron summit there was an anti-French demonstration by hundreds of Malians in the capital, Bamako, during which the French flag was burnt. The French president has made it clear that he is unhappy with the level of political condemnation of such acts across the region. However, the G5 leaders want the French to be brought under the auspices of a regional UN force which will transition from peacekeeping and training to peace-enforcing.
The situation seems to be at an impasse. Without flooding the region with many thousands more troops, a military victory seems unlikely. French military commanders are anxious that the Americans may be withdrawing from the region, knowing that Washington DC is increasingly focused on the Pacific region. If they go, they’ll take with them their unparalleled surveillance capabilities.
The French are concerned that they may be locked into a conflict they cannot win and from which they cannot escape. The British and others worry that a point may come when they have to become more involved, and millions of civilians, in a region stretching for thousands of miles from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, fear endless conflict.
Tim Marshall is a journalist, broadcaster and author of Prisoners of Geography and Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls