Welcome to France's New War on Terror in Africa: Operation Barkhane

"France is starting a lengthy and risky military endeavor in a vast region, with no apparent end in sight."

The French are back in Africa, and apparently ready to stay. During a presidential speech at the military base of Niamey, Niger on July 19, 2014, François Hollande announced a new phase in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism in Africa: Operation Barkhane. Coincidentally, the launch of Operation Barkhane took place three days before the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit began in Washington D.C. on August 4, 2014.

Africa is very much in the minds of the members of the Euro-Atlantic community and is now perceived as an important security dilemma for the West. France has implemented a development-security nexus approach to addressing Africa’s challenges, which is closely connected to the European Union’s strategy. However, Operation Barkhane is a direct illustration of the use of “hard” power in Africa in order to solve a security crisis caused by a regional power vacuum.

Backbone of Operation Barkhane

Operation Barkhane began on August 1, 2014 and took over the precedent French mission in Mali, Operation Serval. Operation Barkhane, “named after a crescent-shaped dune in the Sahara desert,” is to become the French pillar of counterterrorism in the Sahel region. The French will use and deploy a 3,000-strong counterterrorism force over five countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, also known as the ‘G5 Sahel.’ The purpose of Operation Barkhane is to “regionalize” the counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, as well as bolster “cross-border and region-wide securitization efforts.” According to the Ministry of Defense of France, Barkhane’s objectives are two-fold: first, assist the G5 Sahel armed forces in fighting terrorist networks in the Sahel-Sahara region; second, contribute to the prevention of terrorist safe-havens in the region.

In order to fight jihadists in this vast region, Operation Barkhane shall be seen as a reorganization of the forces already present in the region. It will be composed in terms of military and human capabilities of 3,000 military personnel, six fighter jets (Rafale Mirage 2000), twenty helicopters, 200 armored vehicles, ten transport aircrafts, and three drones (as described by AllAfrica.com, RFI, and African Defense Review). In terms of division of labor between France and the G5 Sahel, four permanent military bases have been established:

- headquarters and air force in the Chadian capital of N'Djamena under the leadership of French Général Palasset;

- a regional base in Gao, north Mali, with at least 1,000 men;

- a special-forces base in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou;

- an intelligence base in Niger’s capital, Niamey, with over 300 men; the air base of Niamey, is important as it hosts drones in charge of gathering intelligence across the entire Sahel-Saharan region;

- aside from the four permanent bases, several temporary bases will be created with an average of thirty to fifty men, where and when required.

The Strategic Arc of Instability

Paris attempted to shift its strategy towards Africa under President Nicolas Sarkozy, which has been followed by his predecessor. Historically, France has been a powerful colonial power in Africa. Paris has, since the end of colonization, sought to maintain its influence and deepen its interests in the region. French Africa policy has been known under the term of Françafrique, which embodies neocolonialism and clientelism between Paris and “black” Africa. Once elected, Sarkozy announced he would do away with Francafrique by refusing to do business as usual with Africa. However, as argued by Gordon Cumming in French Politics, Sarkozy’s “Africa policy was marked more by continuity than change.”

With the Arab Spring along with a changing international order, Africa has become a new ground of activity for diverse international criminal and terrorist networks. For instance, countries in West Africa are utilized by Latin American drug cartels in order to sell cocaine onto the European markets. Aside from criminal networks, radical Islamic networks, like Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and Al Qaeda, among others, have flourished in Northern Africa and throughout the Sahel region. The reasons for their rise are various: socio-politico-economic climates in most African countries, porousness of borders, failed states and ethnoreligious tensions.