For the French mission in the Sahel, Echos of Afghanistan | Voice of America


PARIS – The chaotic consequences of Washington’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan are followed by a mixture of apprehension and joy thousands of miles away – in the African Sahel, where another foreign power, France, also promises to end its long counterinsurgency operation, at least in its current form.

As the United States continued to evacuate thousands of citizens and allies from Kabul airport this week, dozens of civilians and soldiers have been killed in multiple Islamist attacks in a vast and dangerous border region on horseback. on Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. It was just another marker of a protracted fight that claimed thousands of lives, displaced 2 million people and, like Afghanistan, is seen by some as impossible to win.

FILE РFrench President Emmanuel Macron pays tribute in front of the flag-draped coffins of the thirteen French soldiers killed in Mali, during a ceremony at the H̫tel National des Invalides in Paris, December 2, 2019.

While there are many striking differences between the United States’ war in Afghanistan and that of France in the Sahel – from their size and nature to their Islamist targets – there are also haunting similarities, analysts say.

Both involve years of foreign involvement in countries with weak and unstable governments. Both operations battled troop fatigue, casualties and diminished support at home. Both are against Islamist groups who many say are patiently confident that they will outlive their enemy.

“If there is one lesson to be learned, it is that indefinite military solutions are not sustainable,” said Bakary Sambe, director of the Senegal-based think tank Timbuktu Institute.

“Sooner or later there has to be an exit,” he said.

Staying in place

Unlike the United States, France has for the moment no intention of withdrawing from the Sahel, a vast area under the Sahara. However, it will soon start scaling down its Operation Barkhane by 5,100 troops, the backbone of a regional counterterrorism fight spanning five countries in West and Central Africa.

French President Emmanuel Macron reacts during a joint press conference with the Nigerien president in the presidential election ...
FILE – French President Macron reacts during a joint press conference with the Nigerien president in Paris on July 9, 2021, following a video summit with the leaders of the G5 Sahel countries.

The Sahel was also not mentioned in French President Emmanuel Macron‘s first major response to the Taliban’s early victory. Rather, he warned of the resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan and illegal migration to Europe.

Still, it can be difficult to compartmentalize.

“I think the French cannot afford not to watch what is happening in Afghanistan as they prepare for the very gradual withdrawal” of Barkhane’s forces, said Yvan Guichaoua, conflict expert at the University of Kent .

The images of chaos and anguish at Kabul airport and elsewhere “is something that certainly shocked French officials,” he said, “and perhaps made them think about the circumstances under which they will leave”.

FILE - In this file photo from August 19, 2021, Taliban fighters fly their flags on patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan.  When we…
FILE – Taliban fighters fly their flag on patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 19, 2021.

Others are not so sure.

” I do not think so [the French] draw that kind of direct parallel ”, between Afghanistan and the Sahel, said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, Sahel project director for the international policy group Crisis Group.

“It may be a mistake. But the French are reducing their numbers, they are not withdrawing. They are still the largest military force in the region, ”he said.

Different – but also echoes of Afghanistan

Macron announced in July that France’s Operation Barkhane would officially end early next year, with troops reduced to half their current numbers and transferred to other counterterrorism missions – notably forming the the backbone of the very young Takuba force of the European Union, currently intended to help Mali fight terrorism in the Sahel region.

This photograph taken on November 3, 2020 shows the logo of the special operations led by France for the new task force Barkhane Takuba,…
FILE – The French-led special operations logo for the new task force Barkhane Takuba, a multinational military mission in the troubled Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa, is visible on November 3, 2020.

Yet France’s revamped mission with its narrow goals – counterterrorism and strengthening local forces rather than securing large swathes of territory – comes after increased casualties, decreased support at home, a growing insurgency and a growing anti-French feeling in certain countries of the Sahel.

Born in 2013, France’s military intervention in this region is half as old as the American war in Afghanistan, with a fraction of its scale and losses of troops. Originally intended to combat jihadist groups in Mali, it then spread to four other vulnerable former colonies – Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania – which together now form a regional counterinsurgency operation. of the G5 Sahel. Meanwhile, the jihadists are moving south, to parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Map of the Sahel region, Africa

As Paris pushes for greater governance and democracy – in June Macron briefly suspended operations in Mali after his second coup in a year – the nation-building efforts seen in Afghanistan are unlikely, Crisis Watch’s Jezequel said.

“It’s a failure,” he added. “But it is a failure of the Sahel states.

Today, some of those states, particularly Mali, watch with concern the rapid collapse of Afghanistan, experts say, even as extremists rejoice.

The myriad of jihadist groups in the Sahel do not have the deep roots and experience of the Taliban, who held power in the 1990s. Islamist is possible, ”Sambe said.

“It will galvanize radical Islamist groups – and that’s fear,” he said.

The European Union executive said on Saturday it did not recognize the Taliban.

Moving forward

For France, advancing in the Sahel means concentrating towards the south, where the insurgency has spread, and strengthening Task Force Takuba. Nearly a dozen European countries, including Estonia, Italy, Denmark and non-EU Norway, have joined or promised to take part in the military mission. But many others remain on the sidelines, including Germany.

“The fear of many European countries is to commit troops and then be faced with a fiasco or the death of soldiers,” Guichaoua said.

However, he and others add that French persuasion, which ranges from fear of migration to Europe due to conflict to offering military support in other areas, seems to be working.

However, no dialogue with extremists is taken into consideration by France – a controversial effort attempted with the Taliban that is winning the support of some Sahelian authorities, at least as far as local groups are concerned.

“The French saw this as a red line,” Guichaoua said. “Because that would mean that French soldiers died for nothing. But it is on the agenda of the Malian authorities.

Negotiations at the local level with jihadist groups have been going on for a long time, he said – to gain access to markets, for example, or to free hostages – but not at a high level, “and the main reason is France” .

For their part, extremists in the Sahel seem prepared to wait, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

The two, Guichaoua said, are convinced that the foreign powers will eventually leave, so time is on their side.


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