West and Central Africa continue to be an integral part of France’s foreign policy and military strategy in order to combat Islamic terrorism and instability in its former colonies. Unlike its former colonial rival, Britain, France is still playing a military role in its former colonies of West and Central Africa. Behind the United States, France has the second largest diplomatic network in the world, and also maintains nine permanent military bases outside of France (1). It is clear that France considers itself one of the major players internationally and still wants to maintain military readiness around the world. France’s presence and campaigns in West and Central Africa are examples of military success, and they play an important role in stabilizing the region.
Operation Serval was a French military operation in Mali in 2013 that aimed to stop jihadists from creating an extremist Islamic caliphate. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) had originally been based out of Algeria, but due to counterterrorism missions, AQIM was pushed into many surrounding countries that lacked a strong military or government (2). Between January and April 2012, Mohamed Ag Najem and Bilal Ag Acherif, leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MLNA), a group that opposed the government, joined with three jihadist groups and gained control of northern Mali. The operation by the French started on January 11, 2013, even after a UN resolution was passed to allow deployment of an African-led International Support Mission.
France’s original military strategy was designed to hold the jihadists outside of Bamako; however, the strategy changed after attacks on French forces on January 14. The new strategy aimed to move as fast as possible and use the element of speed and superior technology to destroy the jihadists and to prevent them from escaping the country. This strategy is much more effective for multiple reasons: First, not allowing insurgents to escape is vital to the long-term success. Insurgents have the ability to blend into the populace, especially if they are being pushed back. A great example of this was when the U.S. invaded Iraq: Even after U.S. forces were present, insurgents would fight briefly or set an IED and blend back into the populace. Also, insurgents have the ability to flee to surrounding failed states, especially in West and Central Africa. This was apparent when the United States first started to combat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden escaped to Pakistan.
The French strategy proved to be successful, but was politically risky for President Hollande because the French public is generally very wary of higher casualties. During the height of the conflict, French forces topped out at around 4,000 (3). This operation was considered by many to be a military success because with a relatively low number of forces, France was able to destroy and push back the jihadists.
After Operation Serval concluded on July 15 2014, Operation Barkhane began as the replacement operation just two weeks later on August 1. This operation is meant to be a permanent counter-terrorism force in Central and West Africa. The counterterrorist force consists of 3,000 troops stationed in five countries known as the G5: Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Operation Barkane has 200 armored vehicles, 20 helicopters, 10 transport/reconnaissance aircraft, 6 fighter aircraft, and 3 drones (4). The French defense ministry stated that the two main objectives of Operation Barkhane are to prevent terrorists from holding territory in the region and assist the G5 countries with counterterrorism through training and support (5).
This operation is essential to making sure that terrorist organizations do not take advantage of the failed or weak states in the region. West and Central Africa face multiple security threats that not only threaten the security of Africa, but also that of Europe and the United States. Boko Haram continues to be a security threat to the region, and although they are primarily operational in and around Nigeria, they could expand to other African nations with a weak military. In addition, drug trafficking is causing instability in the region as anywhere from a quarter to two-thirds of the cocaine that is sent from South America to Europe makes its way through West Africa (6). France’s operations in the region may also include counternarcotics and anti-drug trafficking in the future, in order to prevent drugs from flowing into Europe.
The question regarding France and counterterrorism in the future is how much of a role France will play. By all indications, France is a major factor in counterterrorism, as the Paris and Brussels attacks have awoken the French public to show that they are vulnerable to attack. Operation Serval was a military success in pushing jihadists out of a weak state, while Operation Barkhane is still evolving to stabilize the West and Central Africa region. France’s posture in the region is incredibly important because it is a western country with a strong enough military to train and improve African militaries. Counterterrorism and counternarcotics in West and Central Africa are not only incredibly important for the security of Africa, but also for France and the rest of Europe.
(1) Tertrais, Bruno. "Strategic Posture Review: France." N.p., 15 July 2013. Web. 14 June 2016. <http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/13091/strategic-posture-review-france>.
(2) Spet, Stéphane. "Operation Serval Analyzing the French Strategy against Jihadists in Mali." ASPJ Africa & Francophonie (n.d.): 66-79. 2015. Web. 13 June 2016. <http://www.au.af.mil/au/afri/aspj/apjinternational/aspj_f/digital/pdf/articles/2015_3/spet_e.pdf>.
(3) Shurkin, Michael. France's War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014. http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR770.html.
(4) Waddington, Conway. "Understanding Operation Barkhane." African Defence Review. N.p., 01 Aug. 2014. Web. 14 June 2016. <http://www.africandefence.net/operation-barkhane-under-the-hood/>.
(5) Larivé, Maxime. "Welcome to France's New War on Terror in Africa: Operation Barkhane." The National Interest. N.p., 7 Aug. 2014. Web. 14 June 2016. <http://nationalinterest.org/feature/welcome-frances-new-war-terror-africa-operation-barkhane-11029>.
(6) "Special Articles." Africa Economic Institute : West Africa and Drug Trafficking. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2016. <http://www.africaecon.org/index.php/africa_business_reports/read/70>.
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