SA­HA­RAN FRONT­LINE

IN ITS SA­HA­RAN CAM­PAIGN, HAS FRANCE FOUND THE RIGHT WAY TO FIGHT THE WAR ON TER­ROR?

The New European - - News - BY PAUL KNOTT

Has France found the right way to fight the war on ter­ror?

With­out the ghosts of the Iraq War haunt­ing France, the coun­try is tak­ing a mus­cu­lar ap­proach with its mil­i­tary cam­paign in North Africa. But will it work? PAUL KNOTT re­ports

Iraq. Afghanistan. Libya. Syria. Ye­men. Some re­cent Western in­ter­ven­tions have been too ex­ces­sive. Oth­ers have been timid or non-ex­is­tent. The prob­lems over­whelm­ing each of these coun­tries, and spread­ing into Europe, make it hard to claim any of the de­ci­sions taken have been just right.

Largely un­no­ticed in Bri­tain, France is cur­rently con­duct­ing a very dif­fer­ent counter-ter­ror­ism cam­paign in the Sa­hel re­gion of Africa. Im­per­fect and lim­ited in scope though it is, Op­er­a­tion Barkhane may of­fer a bet­ter model for deal­ing with the ex­trem­ist threat.

The Sa­hel is a vast, sparsely pop­u­lated re­gion be­tween the Sa­hara Desert and the West African sa­van­nah. It cov­ers an area roughly the size of Western Europe and stretches across Burk­ina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mau­ri­ta­nia and Niger. To vary­ing de­grees, all these states are poor and badly gov­erned. They strug­gle to con­trol their sprawl­ing ter­ri­tory, in­clud­ing the long-stand­ing trad­ing and smug­gling routes which criss-cross the re­gion.

Sev­eral branches of the global ji­hadist move­ment took ad­van­tage of these cir­cum­stances to es­tab­lish them­selves in the Sa­hel.

Op­er­a­tion Barkhane (it takes its name from the French term for a cres­cent shaped dune) was launched by then­pres­i­dent François Hol­lande in 2014 to counter these groups and is be­ing

vig­or­ously pur­sued by his suc­ces­sor Em­manuel Macron. Its ob­jec­tive is to deny the ex­trem­ists fixed bases. Do­ing so suc­cess­fully cur­tails their abil­ity to profit from arms, drugs and peo­ple smug­gling. Most of all, it makes it much more dif­fi­cult for them to re­cruit, train and launch at­tacks on both the Sa­hel na­tions and Europe.

The French force is de­signed to be highly flex­i­ble and able to launch rapid strikes over the en­tire re­gion. More than 600 ter­ror­ists have been killed or cap­tured so far dur­ing the op­er­a­tion. Per­haps more im­por­tantly, the groups of which they were part have been scat­tered and kept on the run.

Sim­ply hav­ing a clear and lim­ited ob­jec­tive gives Op­er­a­tion Barkhane an ad­van­tage over the shift­ing goal­posts that be­dev­illed the Afghanistan and Iraq in­ter­ven­tions.

As well as bring­ing di­rec­tion to the cam­paign’s ac­tions, hav­ing a clear pur­pose mat­ters in terms of re­sources too. The end­lessly chang­ing aims in Iraq and Afghanistan gen­er­ated ‘mis­sion creep’ with spi­ralling troop num­bers and wildly ex­pen­sive bud­gets.

Barkhane is capped at 4,500 troops and costs 600 mil­lion euros per year. Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of De­fence, Bri­tain alone spent £20.3 bil­lion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Twelve French sol­diers serv­ing in Op­er­a­tion Barkhane have died since it be­gan in 2014. This com­pares with the 453 Bri­tish deaths in 13 years in Afghanistan and 179 in six years in Iraq.

Barkhane’s mod­est scale and scope en­ables it to evolve quickly. In­creas­ing em­pha­sis is now be­ing placed on co­or­di­nat­ing with lo­cal Sa­hel na­tional forces and train­ing them to take over more of the mis­sion’s ac­tiv­i­ties.

Therein lies one of Op­er­a­tion Barkhane’s main flaws. Its com­man­ders are clear that the mod­est size of their force means that it can­not achieve out­right vic­tory and elim­i­nate the ex­trem­ist groups com­pletely. In­deed, it was never de­signed to do so.

This lim­i­ta­tion makes iden­ti­fy­ing an end­point to the mis­sion dif­fi­cult.

The risk of build­ing up the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of lo­cal se­cu­rity forces is that this may sim­ply make them bet­ter equipped to in­dulge in their pre­vi­ous re­pres­sive prac­tices and hu­man rights abuses. Strength­en­ing them could help them to prop up the of­ten cor­rupt, un­demo­cratic and in­com­pe­tent regimes they serve. These are the very cir­cum­stances and fail­ings that make it eas­ier for ex­trem­ist groups to at­tract re­cruits.

The an­swers to these chal­lenges lie be­yond the scope of Op­er­a­tion Barkhane. The ul­ti­mate so­lu­tions are not mil­i­tary but po­lit­i­cal. End­ing ex­trem­ism in the Sa­hel re­gion re­quires build­ing stable, just and well-run states. This will en­able them to pro­vide free­dom and eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties for their peo­ple.

In­ter­na­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity for im­prov­ing the qual­ity of gov­er­nance in the Sa­hel rests with the sub­stan­tial civil­ian UN, EU and other mis­sions pro­vid­ing de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance to the re­gion. Sadly, a re­cent pol­icy brief­ing by the Euro­pean Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions (ECFR) finds con­sid­er­able room for im­prove­ment in these pro­grammes and much to be done on what is a com­plex, long-term task.

In the mean­time, there re­mains much to com­mend Op­er­a­tion Barkhane and the brave mil­i­tary peo­ple serv­ing in it. Even if it can­not solve the wider prob­lems of the Sa­hel re­gion, con­tin­u­ing to dis­rupt the abil­ity of vi­o­lent ex­trem­ists to cause car­nage there and in Europe is a huge gain. It is also one that is be­ing achieved at a rel­a­tively mod­est cost.

For­tu­nately, too, it should be pos­si­ble to main­tain the mis­sion at cur­rent lev­els for some time to come.

De­clin­ing to get in­volved in the Iraq dis­as­ter has left the French with far more lee­way to pur­sue other in­ter­ven­tions, such as Barkhane. France is un­bur­dened by the hang-ups and pub­lic re­luc­tance stem­ming from re­cent fail­ures that ham­string Bri­tain and the US. Its mis­sion in the Sa­hel is sup­ported across the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, with the par­tial ex­cep­tion of far-left leader Jean-luc Mé­len­chon.

Of­ten in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, it is nec­es­sary to heed Voltaire’s ad­vice “to not let the per­fect be the en­emy of the good”.

Op­er­a­tion Barkhane works with the world as it is, rather than try­ing to turn it up­side down in pur­suit of utopia.

As mem­o­ries of their other fail­ures be­come less raw, more Western coun­tries could seek to adopt this re­strained but ef­fec­tive ap­proach to over­seas in­ter­ven­tions in pur­suit of their own se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.

Photo: Getty Im­ages

NEW AP­PROACH: French sol­diers on pa­trol with Malian forces in Goundam, 80km east of Tim­buktu, dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Barkhane, a joint anti-ter­ror­ist op­er­a­tion

Photo: Getty Im­ages

OP­ER­A­TION BARKHANE WAY­POINT: Top, peo­ple sit near a fully-loaded truck in Madama near the bor­der with Libya. Madama, Niger. The town is on the route used by ji­hadists and arms smug­glers in south­ern Libya to reach north­ern Mali and Niger

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