All that for this ? The departure of the French army from Niger, after a decade of strategic errors, wipes out real military successes in a region that Paris now judges to be in great danger in the face of jihadist progression.
After Operation Serval in Mali in 2013, unanimously described as a success, the Barkhane anti-jihadist force, deployed over an area extended to the Sahelo-Saharan strip, will have up to 5,500 soldiers, with intelligence assets, light armored vehicles, fighter planes and armed drones. At the cost of the death of 58 soldiers, it managed for a long time to contain the threat, to disrupt the networks and to eliminate the jihadist leaders. “Almost all the major military leaders have been killed. Militarily, there was no French defeat,” Djallil Lounnas, of Al Akhawayn University, in Morocco, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
France has even pacified certain areas of the region. But the objectives of training local armies and restoring central states to secure zones have failed.
Denis Tull, of the German Institute for International Relations and Security (SWP), believes that Paris has lacked “a real desire for partnership” with the countries of the region. “Barkhane more or less rotated in his orbit, going it alone – which was certainly simpler and more effective in the short term than launching joint operations,” he notes. The training was introduced “quite late, even too late, […] when the political damage was already there.”
“Ambiguity of governments”
Paris encountered distrust from African states, and also showed itself incapable of proposing a discourse acceptable to local populations. Even when President Emmanuel Macron understood “the ambiguity of the region’s governments towards France”, at the Franco-Sahelian summit in Pau in 2020, “he still increased the number of French troops”, explains Denis Tull at the ‘AFP. “As if France had locked itself in: once we have chosen a path, we can no longer change direction. »
Today, Joseph Henrotin, Belgian political scientist and editor-in-chief of the magazine Defense and international security (CIO), pays tribute to “the sacrifices made” by the French forces. But “ Barkhane is unfortunately a failure at the political-strategic level, the only one that counts,” he adds. on page X (formerly Twitter) of CIOdeploring that the troops have not managed to “be a “generator of sovereignty” for the States of the region”.
Paris has tried to rely on help from Washington and, from 2020, to involve its European partners. In vain.
Western-trained armies “carried out coups leading to the loss of governments” in the region, says Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington. “The irony of the coup in Niger, in particular, is that terrorism was trending down. »
Refusal to discuss
In recent years, some experts have deplored Paris’ refusal to discuss, particularly with Sahelian jihadist groups who defend local policies conducive to negotiations, unlike the centers of the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda, whose aims are planetary. “More than two decades of strategic failures in the fight against terrorism should constitute a good argument in favor of negotiations [avec les djihadistes], as one tool among others,” the Soufan Center recently wrote. “Removing it from possible options is like fighting with one hand behind your back. »
In Niger, the deposed president Mohamed Bazoum himself extended his hand: peace agreements between communities, development projects, negotiations with armed groups. A policy that Paris has never openly criticized, but which displeased Niger, particularly in the army.
By the end of the year, only a thousand French soldiers in Chad will remain in the region. To fight against jihadists, States will have embryonic air capabilities, weakened intelligence and land equipment that is eminently less numerous and modern than French equipment. “If Niger takes the same slope as Mali and Burkina, things could go much faster,” said a senior French officer. “There is great concern about a gray zone which risks destabilizing the entire Saharo-Sahelian strip, even Chad, and pushing even faster towards the Gulf of Guinea. »
Togo, Ghana, Benin, even Ivory Coast and Senegal are now threatened. “Jihadists are present everywhere. The French army leaves and they control the situation,” laments Djallil Lounnas. “The main parameters of the jihadist threat have only progressed: control of territory, expansion of armed groups and support of the populations. »