Operation Barkhane: leaving Mali to better stay in the Sahel

They seek and strike the enemy in the vastness of the desert, staring for hours on a large screen. In this motionless journey that characterizes the piloting of an aircraft at a distance, the crew of a Reaper drone engaged in the war led by France in the Sahel flies at 20,000 feet (6,096 m), auscultates the mineral surface during for hours, silently spying on towns and villages under the precise eye of the autonomous machine’s sophisticated optics. Here he is focused on a suspicious movement, studying the habits of a kataba (a unit of jihadist fighters), analyzing the images of a gathering here, watching a movement there, finding out about a gathering elsewhere.

The four pilots without names (just first names) of this Reaper in flight are, in a way, the guardian angels of the convoys and the interventions on the ground, sowing fire and fear among the terrorists. They are locked in armored and soundproof boxes at the French base in Niamey.

In the capital of Niger where nearly a thousand tricolor soldiers are positioned, the district reserved for the drones of the Barkhane force – five Reapers bought from the Americans – does not look like much. Hangars, kit shelters follow one another and mix behind protective walls and sandbags under a vertical sun and an outside temperature of 45°C. Nothing indicates that this district has become, over the years, the most feared place of the anti-jihadist struggle led by Paris in the Sahelo-Saharan strip (BSS). With its Reapers and five Mirage 2000s, Niamey’s “hunting component” is indeed Barkhane’s shield and sword.

Dangers that haunt the military

Pressed by the Elysée to leave Mali as quickly as possible, chased by Bamako from this country which it liberated in 2013 from the jihadist grip, the French army is packing up while ensuring the safety of its troops. This withdrawal – a simple “rearticulation” in the language of communicators – must be completed by the end of August.

The timetable is very short, the military know it but do not say it. At least not publicly: “We would have preferred more time, less tight planning. But the politician sets the objectives, we put ourselves in order to achieve them”, entrusts a senior officer in the French base.

However, nothing is more vulnerable and more exposed for an army than to withdraw, what is more in an environment as hostile as the Sahel, where the distances are considerable, the climate ruthless, the support of the population uncertain and the armed groups determined. The latter are perfectly adapted to this demanding environment.

The list of dangers incurred by the French during this “rearticulation” continues to haunt the soldiers of the BSS: explosives scattered along the routes taken by the convoys, prepared or opportune ambushes, instrumentalization of the crowd to push the French to the fault. As in Tera (in the south-west of Niger), in November 2021.

“It’s a sensitive episode”, agrees a soldier: a demonstration organized to oppose the passage of a convoy of Barkhane led the French soldiers to open fire. Result: three Nigerians killed, dozens injured. Warning shots that ricochet? Direct shots? The tragedy of Tera has not finished poisoning the French presence in Niger, where exceptionally, no tricolor flag floats on the military premises of Barkhane.

Should his soldiers fear other episodes of this type? More than forty convoys are planned to transport to Niamey the equipment from the last two French bases in Mali, in Gao and Ménaka. The largest convoys have up to a hundred vehicles: one third providing protection and two thirds freighting the goods.

Chad, a crumbling pillar

Since their engagement in 2013, the French have never been in such a delicate and explosive position in this rapidly changing region. Does their divorce from Bamako announce others? Everyone thinks about it, many fear it within Operation Barkhane. Anti-French demonstrations continue to multiply in the Sahel as far as Chad, the historical pillar on which its military presence is based.

However, the base of this pillar has itself crumbled since the death of Idriss Déby, the man whom Paris helped to install in power in 1990, killed on the front in April 2021. It falters under the repeated blows of the mercenaries from the Russian company Wagner, one of whose objectives is to drive France out of what remains of its former “African backyard”.

Avoid a Saigon and Kabul effect

The French forces are forced to adapt to the new geopolitical deal in the Sahel with a meta-objective set by the Élysée, never said but always present in mind: do everything to avoid the Saigon effect and, since the 15 August 2021, the Kabul effect. In other words, no catastrophic withdrawals, like those of the American army from Vietnam in the 1970s and, more recently, from Afghanistan.

Listening to the French executive carefully, he does not plan to leave the Sahel militarily. And even less West Africa at this time when the region seems eaten away by the jihadist and mafia hydra (drug traffickers, illegal trade, human trafficking). The Gaullist doxa is still in force at the Élysée: without Africa, France would lose its rank on the international scene.

So stay, but how? “People don’t realize how much we intend to change the way we do things, responds General Laurent Michon, the commander of Barkhane passing through Niamey. We are putting ourselves in a position to support the various African capitals that so wish through cooperation and training, by committing 2,500 men there.And we open the door to all European countries that wish to commit to this support. » In other words, it is no longer a question of being the spearhead or the bridgehead of the anti-jihadist struggle, but of being, like the Reapers for Barkhane, the guardian angels of the African forces.


94 Reaper drone releases in May

The planned air base of Operation Barkhane is located since 2013 at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Reaper drones of the Barkhane force have been armed since 2019.

For the month of May 2022 alone, the Reaper detachment from the Niamey base carried out 94 sorties. Fighter aircraft flew 110 sorties, and the tanker and transport aircraft detachment 316 sorties.

During the last week of May, Barkhane’s soldiers killed a dozen jihadists.

We wish to thank the writer of this write-up for this outstanding material

Operation Barkhane: leaving Mali to better stay in the Sahel

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