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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.
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, who has been in power since 1990. In 2006 and 2008, French troops helped prevent Déby’s overthrow during a series of rebel assaults on N’Djamena, Chad’s capital. France also shares intelligence with Déby’s government, transports troops and equipment for the Chadian military, and provides advisers to assist Chad’s ongoing efforts to modernize its army, police, and intelligence services. The consensus among French policymakers, according to a 2015 French parliamentary report, is that the French presence in Chad has “truly favored the construction of a state and armed forces which are among the most solid in the region.”
If the Sahel stabilizes in the coming decades, international military assistance will likely not be responsible.
Such support might marginally improve Chad’s rapacious security sector. But given the highly factionalized nature of the Chadian military, France’s support for the Déby government could ultimately have destabilizing effects. The Déby regime maintains its grip on power through a precarious ethnic balancing act at the state’s elite levels, and Déby’s presidential guard, which is drawn from members of his own ethnic group and has been accused by local human rights organizations of running secret prisons and committing other human rights abuses, serves as a vital French auxiliary. The rest of Chad’s military stands in various states of disarray and is largely unaccountable to democratic institutions; a 2014 UN Human Rights Committee report noted that “torture is practiced routinely by [Chad’s] police, defense, and security forces, with particularly brutal and cruel methods.”
The historic repression of communities such as the Tama in eastern Chad; the poverty, relative isolation, and history of rebellion among the Toubou and other communities in the country’s northwest; and political divisions among the Zaghawa, some of whom form Déby’s core constituency, all suggest that the stability of Déby’s government should not be taken for granted and that another bloody civil war is possible in Chad. In this light, France’s tendency to turn a blind eye to poor governance in the country could have serious consequences.
Even France’s widely acclaimed Operation Serval, which successfully captured large areas of northern Mali from Islamist militants and Tuareg separatists, may have solved an immediate problem by sacrificing Mali’s potential for inclusive political change in the long term. The French intervention, which took place at the same time as major protests against the transitional authorities who took power after Mali’s 2012 coup d’état, signaled international support for Malian authorities and prevented the antigovernment challenge from fully materializing, to the benefit of the former regime’s corrupt elites. What is more, the June 2015 peace accord between Bamako and northern Malian rebels, which was supported by France, addressed neither Bamako’s divisive and corrupt methods of governance nor the serious divisions among Tuareg and non-Tuareg elites in northern Mali. France’s inattention to these issues leaves local authorities with little motivation to reform.
Like their counterparts elsewhere, many French officials believe that instability in the Sahel is the result of weak or fragile states’ inabilities to control vast portions of their territories. This view, articulated in a 2013 French defense white paper, holds that ungoverned spaces provide safe havens for terrorist groups, criminal networks, and other destabilizing elements.
In reality, however, the root cause of violence in the Sahel’s apparently lawless areas is neither the absence nor the inefficacy of state institutions but the presence of violent and deformed ones. The armed groups that emerge from such areas, such as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Tuareg separatist group whose rebellion set off the collapse of northern Mali in 2012, tend to have their roots in local grievances encouraged by these conditions—in the MNLA’s case, by Bamako’s failure to abide by previous peace agreements with the Mali’s Tuareg communities and its collusion with criminal networks and smugglers, among other transgressions.
France’s tendency to turn a blind eye to poor governance in Chad could have serious consequences.
Indeed, most of the armed groups now operating in the Sahel do not belong to transnational terrorist organizations or espouse highly politicized religious ideologies. Those local groups that do establish limited links to Islamist terrorism, such as central Mali’s Macina Liberation Front, tend to do so out of a need for weapons or money. Yet the presence of groups of this kind allows regional authorities to conflate broader political opposition with terrorism in order to mobilize foreign support for their rule. By backing such exclusive political systems, the international community, and especially France, contributes to the region’s real sources of instability.
There are no easy fixes to the violence and poor governance that plague the Sahel. But lasting improvements to the region’s current instability will not likely come from the outside.
Outside of the military domain, France’s ability to bring positive change to the region is relatively limited. Expertise and experience in African affairs is not highly valued in the French diplomatic corps; many diplomats prefer safer or more politically important postings in wealthier regions. What is more, the French Foreign Ministry has not heavily invested in the civilian aspects of crisis management in conflict areas, and in recent years, it has lost substantial expertise in African affairs, partly as a result of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’ decision, in 2012 and 2013, to purge the ministry of several well-regarded Africa experts, including some specialists on the Sahel. In practice, all of this means that the French military has taken an outsize role in decision-making, conflict management, and certain aspects of diplomacy in Africa.
Yet if the Sahel stabilizes in the coming decades, international military assistance will likely not be responsible. Locally organized peace and reconciliation processes, such as those that have recently taken place in Mali, represent the best hope to end intercommunal violence and to undermine terrorist groups and other armed factions there.
As such, France should work with governments and local civil society groups across the Sahel to facilitate this kind of peacemaking. At the same time, France should avoid undermining these peace processes by limiting its support for repressive governments. In Chad, that will require scaling down French military cooperation with the Déby regime, and in Mali, it will require refocusing French military efforts on assisting MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping operation. (France should continue to monitor the region’s truly dangerous terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.)
Given the vital importance of demilitarizing domestic politics in Chad and Mali, France should do more to fund and monitor demobilization programs for local militias and other armed groups. It should also increase funding for organizations promoting government accountability, provide funding and training to independent press outlets, and push for more equitable trade relations between regional states and the European Union. None of these actions would decisively stabilize the Sahel, but they are far more likely to lead to lasting gains, however small, than is the current approach.