PARIS – France and the nations known as the G5 Sahel (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad) agreed on Monday to adjust their anti-terrorism strategy in the West African region with more troops, greater coordination and new objectives in the face of a series of reversals and particularly bloody attacks in recent weeks.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who met in the southern French city of Pau with the heads of state of those five Sahel countries, announced at a joint press conference that he will send 220 more soldiers to participate in Operation Barkhane, which already has 4,500 French troops in the region.
In addition, French soldiers will work in closer coordination with the troops of the G5 Sahel countries to undertake operations focused on two big priorities: the fight against the jihadist Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and in the area where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso come together.
The move is intended to provide a response to the recent reversals suffered in the region starting with the collision of two French helicopters in Menaka, Mali, which resulted in the deaths of 13 soldiers.
After that came three attacks: one in Inates that killed 71 soldiers on Dec. 10 for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility; another on Dec. 24 in Arbinda, Burkina Faso, in which about 40 people died, including 35 civilians; and the latest on Jan. 9 in Chinagodrar, Niger, in which 89 soldiers from that nation lost their lives.
Burkina Faso President Christian Kabore, who currently heads the G5 Sahel group, insisted that the nations must “move to a phase of greater coordination in our operations” because the results to date “are below what the public expects.”
The move is also a subtle way to respond to the protests that have been spreading on the streets and social networks in recent months and which have focused on criticizing the French military presence, in some cases with the connivance of the authorities.
These protests have led Macron to demand that top officials in the Sahel nations publicly express their support for the anti-terrorism campaign and even to threaten possibly withdrawing French troops.
The French leader – in addition to noting the cost in blood that his country has paid to protect the Sahel, with 41 French soldiers having died since their arrival in the region in 2013 – said that those discussions are “despicable” and called on authorities to find those responsible for them, about which he said he has certain ideas.
Specifically, he noted that those remarks benefit the terrorist organizations and other powers – which he did not name – who want France to leave the part of Africa that it formerly ruled as a colonial power.
In the final Pau declaration, the leaders of the G5 Sahel expressed their explicit support for France to continue its military presence in their nations in the interest of the African peoples.
Kabore emphasized that, given the growing lack of confidence of the people in the mission, “results (are needed) quickly because the credibility of each country and the coalition is at stake.”
Apart from the new orientation of the alliance among the six nations, their presidents have laid the basis for creating what they are calling a “coalition for the Sahel” to which they hope to attract “all the countries and organizations that may want to contribute,” although so far not many have expressed interest.
Macron said that France is in the Sahel, in the first place, “for the fight against terrorism,” the proliferation of which there is a threat not only to the region but elsewhere as well, and also to allow those states to assume their full sovereignty, which is threatened by jihadist groups.
Along those lines, he did not hide his concern over the announcement of the reduction of the US presence in the area, which Paris considers to be indispensable due to Washington’s technological and logistic support for undertaking anti-terrorist operations.
After the closed-door meeting with the G5 Sahel presidents, Macron hosted them at a working dinner at which the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the European Union’s top foreign policy representative, Josep Borrell, were present.