On the borders of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania, the immense desert region of the Sahel is far, very far from being pacified. Why, moreover, would it be? One only has to read the accounts of the colonial era, when Western power was at its peak in Africa, to remember that these borders, lands of Tuareg nomads and caravans, have always been rebellious. Intervening in the Sahel, as France has done since the deployment of its army in Mali in January 2013, will never result in total victory. The challenge remains to contain the jihadist threat rather than eradicate it.
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This mission, the subject of the summit of the multinational force G5 Sahel which is being held on Monday and Tuesday in N’Djamena (Chad), is increasingly judged in the light of the failure of the United States in Afghanistan. However, attractive as it is, this comparison has serious limits.
The first limit is the scale of the military effort. Afghanistan, a country that was also never brought to heel by colonization, was between 2001 and 2011 (the date of the start of the withdrawal decided by Barack Obama) the theater of a high intensity conflict opposing, at the peak of operations, a multinational force of 130,000 troops under NATO command; and an American force of 50,000 men. The deluge of resources implemented in this mountainous and fierce country is therefore without possible analogy with the 5,100 men of the Barkhane force, the 13,000 UN peacekeepers in Mali and the 10,000 soldiers of the G5 Sahel. Two thousand GIs have died on Afghan soil, while 57 French soldiers have perished to date.
The second limitation to this comparison stems from the nature of the threat. The United States, launched in the Afghan expedition following the attacks of September 11, 2001, had all the more reasons to withdraw because their immediate security was not in danger. The Sahel, on the other hand, presents a real challenge for Europe, at the gateway to the Mediterranean. Abandoning it, faced with the appreciable risk of getting bogged down, would undoubtedly lead to regional destabilization, the consequences of which our continent would suffer in terms of trafficking, migratory flows and possible terrorist attacks.
As costly and frustrating as it is, French military intervention can hardly be drastically reduced in the short term. The trap has closed on the Barkhane force. Present, it takes the blows and pays dearly the price of the regional political and economic decay. Absent, it would leave behind a Sahel-powder keg whose consequences no one today is able to measure.