REPORTING. France resizes its system in the Sahel

There is no French withdrawal from Mali. Certainly, the President of the Republic anticipated, on June 10, 2021, the end of the operation Barkhane as an external operation but Emmanuel Macron especially announced a profound transformation of our military presence in the Sahel.

Transformation therefore. But the term has too often been supplanted by those of “re-articulation”, “redeployment”, “disengagement” and even “withdrawal”. The amalgamation with the pitiful American “withdrawal” from Afghanistan quickly gave rise to questions, shortcuts, even accusations of abandonment. Some of France’s partners in the Sahel have blamed the blow.

Read also: Sahel: how the French force Barkhane is redeploying in Mali

Thus, very officially, the United Nations Organization judges that the redistribution of French forces is excellent since it responds to the new mapping of the terrorist threat on Malian ground. In reality, behind the scenes of the UN, annoyance dominates. France did not initially consider it useful to warn the United Nations of this redeployment., explains a senior official of Minusma, the UN force in Mali. We were very surprised, and we wrote in disaster many scenarios on the possible dimensions that could take of this withdrawal since it is this term which was used. So there was annoyance and even more noticeable annoyance on the part of certain foreign contingents.

Malian reactions have been virulent. At the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Choguel Maïga accused France ofabandonment in mid-flight. And he added that his country was going look for other partners since the new situation born at the end of Barkhane leads us to explore ways and means to better ensure security independently. The new Malian regime has therefore turned to the Russians. He was first tempted to use the services of the Russian private military company Wagner, whose mercenaries are already deployed in the Central African Republic in the government camp. French and Estonian threats to withdraw from the mission Takuba, composed of detachments of European special forces, froze this project. But Choguel Maïga still flirts with Moscow. In a recent interview with the Russian agency RIA Novosti, he declared as follows: If we conclude an agreement with Russia, practice shows that it is a reliable partner. And pan on the nose of Paris!

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It is against this background of incomprehension and tensions that the force Barkhane transforms. Without, for the moment, reducing the sails.

The first phase of this transformation, however, involved a withdrawal: the French garrisons of Tessalit and Kidal were evacuated and their bases transferred to the Malian forces (FAMAs) or to the peacekeepers. The base in Timbuktu will in turn be evacuated and surrendered in mid-December.

photo a French logistics convoy.  composed of military and civilian vehicles, it brought together 130 vehicles.  © west france

A French logistics convoy. Composed of military and civilian vehicles, it brought together 130 vehicles. © West France

This maneuver is not yet accompanied by workforce reductions (Barkhane number 5,200 soldiers), the small garrisons concerned being redeployed further south. Reinforcements from metropolitan France (400 soldiers including many logisticians) even reached the French camp of Gao, in northeastern Mali.

It was a question of being able to accommodate all the combat and life equipment released from these rights-of-way., explains Colonel Marc, the boss of the Dragon Logistics battle group. Phase 1 revolved around the closure of sites, recovery of equipment and sorting. Phase 2, in Gao, involves another sorting between what needs to be destroyed, what can be reconditioned and used by Barkhane or FAMAs and what will be repatriated to metropolitan France. Hence the creation of a 55,000 m² hub to store, unload, sort and recondition equipment. It is the crossing point for most processing operations, summarizes Colonel Thibault, the local representative of the commanding general Barkhane.

The hub site was to be delivered by November 15, explains Lieutenant Charles, the head of the works section whose soldiers carted shrubs, stone and earth from 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. It is 40 ° C very quickly and the dust is intense, continues this officer of the 19e engineer regiment.

photo lieutenant charles (left) and one of the soldiers of the 19th engineer regiment who have prepared a 55,000 m² hub to accommodate all the equipment withdrawn from french bases in northern mali.  © west-france

Lieutenant Charles (on the left) and one of the soldiers of the 19th Engineer Regiment who prepared a 55,000 m² hub to accommodate all the equipment withdrawn from French bases in northern Mali. © Ouest-France

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Such works are not only in Gao, specifies Captain Guillaume, who commands the deployment support company. Indeed, its 120 men are building new infrastructures in Gao but also in Ménaka further south where the force Takuba shows in power. It is the sign that Barkhane is here to stay! sums up Colonel Marc.

No abandonment

Barkhane is here to stay. First, because there is still an anti-terrorism mission to accomplish. The arrival on the theater and the baptism of fire of the new multirole armored vehicles Griffon testify to an even more solid and lasting commitment. In addition, the transfer to Niger of GTD3 (the Desert Salamandre tactical group) certainly reduced the French troops in Mali but not in the Sahel since this unit (currently, the 501e combat tank regiment) will fight south of the Malian border.

photo a french patrol of gtd korrigan in the city of gao.  a griffin armored vehicle can be seen on the left.  © west france

A French patrol of GTD Korrigan in the town of Gao. We can see a Griffon armored vehicle on the left. © West France

Then because we do not abandon our Malian comrades, as a French lieutenant summed it up when he left Tessalit.

Read also: Mali. The Korrigan battle group will become legend in the Sahel

Indeed, support for the Malian armed forces continues. In the field of training, for example: GATA (advanced tactical air guides, responsible for guiding strikes by aircraft or drones) are trained in Gao. This is the fourth internship this year. These GATA will be deployed in northern Malian units and will guide our Mirage and our drones in case of need for air-ground support, explains Gaël. This Air and Space Army commander commands a team of six trainers. Lieutenant Jérémie, of the 11e Marine artillery regiment of the Lande d’Oue (Ille-et-Vilaine), perched with three trainees at the top of a tower, explains the radio procedures specific to guidance. Staff Sergeant Daouda is enthusiastic: Now we can direct the strikes. This is a big change, we will be able to defeat the enemy ourselves and no longer only thanks to the Barkhane.

To this training component is added that of the combat partnership. Cooperation between Takuba and the Malian light reconnaissance and intervention units focus as much on training as on support in combat. In addition, the intervention area of Takuba is not limited to the area between Gao and the Niger border: It is possible for us to intervene in support of FAMAs in the north even if Barkhane left, specifies Captain Julien who commands the Franco-Estonian Task Group 1.

photo in one of the hangars which houses the nh 90 helicopters, the crews and technical teams keep their shape every evening, as soon as the heat is more bearable.  © west france

In one of the hangars that houses the NH 90 helicopters, the crews and technical teams stay in shape every evening, as soon as the heat is more bearable. © West France

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Same tone at the Aérocombat tactical group (350 men and twenty helicopters including 100 soldiers and three Chinook British). Its leader, Colonel Alexander, puts forward the principle of reinsurance: It is for us to intervene quickly for the benefit of friendly forces. My helicopters can thus ensure ground support, refueling and medical evacuation missions for the benefit of FAMAs and peacekeepers.

Governance crisis

There is therefore no lack of signs of this French desire for permanence.

However, the transformation is well underway and the next step will see the workforce of Barkhane definitely melt in half. A prospect difficult to imagine as the deterioration in security is indisputable.

However, recalls Jean-Hervé Jezequel, director of the Sahel project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), the current approach has failed to curb the security crisis, which continues to spread to new areas. For him, it is less a question of responding to an insecurity crisis than a crisis of governance which is at the root of the Sahel’s problems and which generates growing hostility towards national authorities.

A message well received in Paris. Emmanuel Macron did not also specify, still on June 10, that France cannot replace the return of the State and State services, political stability and the choice of sovereign States ?