A great message came out of the Pau summit where, on 13 January, the French president received his counterparts from the G-5 Sahel (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad): the Sahelians asked France to maintain its military presence in their country.
France’s military presence dates back to January 2013. At that time, and at the country’s own request, President Holland sent troops to Mali whose capital was threatened by a column of jihadists. This French intervention, called Serval, had received the blessing of the UN Security Council. The first step was to secure Bamako and, secondly, to help Mali recover its territorial integrity.
But the Islamist katibas, led by fanatical chiefs equipped with the remains of Gaddafi’s army and enriched by drug and human trafficking, proved to be tougher than expected. Fading into the desert and then reappearing unexpectedly, they have retained their full capacity to be a nuisance.
Worse, they have gone beyond the borders of Mali to attack the territories of Niger and Burkina Faso. In August 2014, Serval had to be replaced with a longer-term operation, where France keeps forces capable of intervening rapidly in the five Sahelian countries in support of their armies.
Operation Barkhane (4500 men permanently) is already five and a half years old and is not about to end.
If the French were to leave, it would not take long for the columns of jihadists to take control of the two weakest countries of the G-5 Sahel: Mali and Burkina. France, which bears an undeniable responsibility for the chaos in Libya, has a moral duty not to abandon these friendly nations of the Sahel, all of which are former colonies. But its well-understood interests also lead France to keep its soldiers there until the local armies have been reconstituted to the point where they can cope on their own with determined, cruel, swift, surprise attacks.
France has, in fact, no interest in the immense Sahelian strip falling into chaos. Contrary to what is sometimes believed, it is not because of the uranium: France can get that from many other countries in the world. France rightly fears a migration bomb from the Sahel countries.
The G-5 extends over five million square kilometres and includes some 80 million inhabitants, two-thirds of whom are under 25 years old. France will never be able to help these states to settle their young male population at home if chaos reigns in the countryside.
Moreover, the states bordering the Sahel and old allies of France, such as Côte d’Ivoire, are openly asking Paris to maintain its forces for fear of a contagion of violence that could reach the shores of the Gulf of Guinea.
Several hundred young people, manipulated by cynical politicians, may be demonstrating in Bamako, but they are not fooling anyone.
The overwhelming majority of African city dwellers and peasants do not want the violence and absolutism of the jihadists. They know that today only France has the means to protect them. But it is up to the Sahelian states to win the war of information mounted by the katibas and traffickers.
However, being asked to stay is not a sufficient reason for France to do so. She must still have a reasonable chance of success in her military venture.
At first glance, the conditions do not seem favourable.
Our American ally, valuable for its intelligence capabilities, has said that it will soon leave Niger. With the exception of the British, France’s European allies do not have armies ready to support her in Africa. It would be useful for Paris to ask for more support from the new Algerian President and to be firmer with regard to the G-5 leaders, who are sometimes not beyond double-speak or demagoguery.
But let us not exaggerate the power of the jihadists in the Sahel. They are not the Taliban, and there is no Pakistani sanctuary. In the Sahel there is a viable way out of the crisis. It is through the building of strong states with motivated and well-trained armed forces. This has already been achieved in Mauritania.
The French army knows how to educate officers and train soldiers in the field for combat. The trap to be avoided is well known: that it too often finds itself in the front line and then it is said that it is a war of whites against blacks.
France therefore faces two challenges: to prepare its African friends gradually to take over its military operations; and to obtain a financial contribution to its effort from its European allies. These are two important challenges, but they are by no means impossible.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.