A Flawed Strategy in the Sahel

How French Intervention Contributes to Instability

French forces from Operation Barkhane on patrol north of Timbuktu, Mali, November 2014.  Joe Penney / REUTERS

Since Operation Serval, the French intervention in Mali that freed territory seized by Islamist and separatist rebels in 2013 and 2014, the administration of President François Hollande has taken a highly militarized and proactive approach to counterterrorism in Africa’s Sahel. In military terms, the results of France’s efforts have been remarkable. Serval and its successor mission, Operation Barkhane, have managed to overcome substantial obstacles of distance, climate, and lack of infrastructure to achieve impressive successes against armed groups across the region. 

Despite these military successes, however, Operation Barkhane may be doing more harm than good, since it provides crucial support to the repressive governments that are at the heart of the Sahel’s problems. A lighter French footprint focused on local peace-building efforts would cost less and be more effective in bringing real stability to the region.


Operation Barkhane began in August 2014, when France reorganized Operation Serval and a concurrent 28-year-old mission in Chad called Operation Épervier into a unified counterterrorism mission consisting of more than 3,500 French troops across Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. French forces work to support the militaries of partner countries by, for example, conducting joint operations, providing medical services, and liaising with local militaries on coordination and planning. Paris believes that these efforts can help “maintain the terrorist problem at a level at which the countries in the region can manage themselves.” At least in this respect, Operation Barkhane seems to have been successful.

MNLA fighters in the desert near Tabankort, Mali, February 2015. If the Sahel stabilizes in the coming decades, international military assistance will likely not be responsible.
MNLA fighters in the desert near Tabankort, Mali, February 2015. Souleymane Ag Anara / REUTERS

Yet the thinking behind French interventionism in the Sahel is flawed, and the strategies that follow from it risk exacerbating the region’s long-term problems. By bolstering governments that prey on their populations, France’s interventions increase the potential for unrest, rebellion, and even jihadist-inspired terrorism. 

Consider the case of Chad, the former French colony where Operation Barkhane is headquartered. France’s long presence there has provided invaluable support to the regime of President Idriss Déby,

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