Since 2014, France has spearheaded Operation Barkhane in an effort to help stabilise a vast region that encompasses the countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger. With a force of nearly 4,500 troops, Barkhane is France’s largest overseas combat operation and was designed to bolster native military forces to fend off jihadist attacks and the seizing of territories across the sub-Saharan expanse.
Events over the past week are a clear indication of how deadly the situation remains in the Sahel region. At least 25 Malian troops were killed by extremists between October 7th and 8th, with dozens going missing. On October 5th, three attacks in Burkina Faso were carried out on villages and military installations, killing seventeen people and one soldier. The inundation of violence and insecurity has triggered a continual wave of refugees making their way towards the continent’s northern shores, bound for illegal convoys crossing the Atlantic to Europe.
Though the mission is in its fifth year, indigenous troops are still far from prepared to deal with Al-Qaeda and Islamic State-backed extremist threats on their own. France’s request for EU assistance, particularly from special forces, is being rapidly processed – with the goal of forming a Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) for the Sahel region.
The urgency behind establishing a capable security apparatus was reiterated by French Defence Minister Florence Parly last June, when she warned that it was vital for Europe to meet the threat head on or face the consequences. “Europe will have two swords of Damocles over its head: terrorism and kidnappings, but also illegal migrants, since many are travelling through these areas”, Parly said.
The proposed new force would be under French command. Aside from the military component, a significant financial commitment is also required. Most monetary support will likely come from the European Union, with the bloc announcing a 138 million euro commitment for security in the region, on top of a previous 115.6 million euros. In addition to the CJSOTF, France is also leading the deployment of the G5 Sahel Force – a 4,500 strong pan-regional counterterrorism force encompassing troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.
The French force operates alongside both the EU Training Mission in Mali and MINUSMA, the UN force in the Sahel that boasts a budget of 1 billion dollars with 15,000 military and policing personnel. The MINUSMA mission has a robust mandate, frequently engaging in direct action against extremists alongside the Malian armed forces. It is currently the third largest UN peacekeeping operation and also the deadliest, with 177 peacekeepers killed since initial deployment five years ago. Countries such as Germany and Ireland have recently contributed special forces capabilities to the MINUSMA mission.
Despite extensive outside efforts, indigenous forces in the region are still poorly equipped and badly motivated, with high desertion rates. The gravity of the situation in the Sahel region, and its resulting potential impact on Europe, was summed up in a recent France 24 interview with President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou, who said that a coalition similar to the one that neutralised ISIS in Syria, incorporating the military might of nations such as the US and Russia, is needed to bring order to the region.
“We plan to involve our external partners more closely in the fight against this threat, which does not only concern our region, it concerns the world. The fight we are fighting, we are fighting for the whole world. Because if, one day, the Sahel is occupied by terrorists, Europe will be affected and the whole world will be threatened”, President Issoufou stated.