French Military Adventures in Africa

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Dr Roland Marchal analyses the political, strategic and military dimensions of Operation Barkhane, a new step in the French war on terror in North and West Africa

Nearly a year and half after it was launched on January 11, 2013, Operation Serval in Mali was concluded on August 1, 2014 and replaced by a new (and more ambitious in scale) deployment, Operation Barkhane. This new step in the French war on terror must be analysed thoroughly. The new operation draws important lessons from Operation Serval: it takes seriously the regional dimension of Jihadi networks and addresses it. The Operation Barkhane also embodies a number of strategic changes mentioned in the French White Paper on Defence and Security1. It also uses a window of opportunity offered by ending Serval to reform France’s military presence on the African continent.

New Operation Raises Important Questions

Of course, this new setting raises further questions. The French government has a very restrictive view on the mandate of this operation: it is a military deployment with no other goals than ‘destroying terrorists’2. As different USA administrations came to learn, terrorism is a way to wage war, not the proper way to define enemies. So why is France starting a war on the same assumptions as the US did in 2001? Another important issue is that France, always claiming to be the avant-garde of the international community, is acting alone through bilateral agreements with African states that boast French military presence. This raises questions about the consistency of French policy: on the one hand, Paris always seeks support from its international partners, and, on the other; it keeps regional and continental organisations in Africa and the European Union un-associated with this project due to which the EU appears increasingly reluctant to follow France in its military adventures in the continent. Last but not the least, the whole logic of the upcoming exercise gives the impression that France is actually re-centring its military presence on West Africa as if terror networks and Jihadi groups were polarised by the Francophony. Is France trying to sanctuarise important economic assets in Africa using military means as political tools? That would not be the first and only paradox of the François Hollande presidency.

President François Hollande has selected his options clearly: the mandate given to Serval was not to rebuild the state, reshape Malian politics or even offer a roadmap to solve the Tuareg problem. He opted for military intervention that would address a military situation: that was full and all. Based on that very limited and precise mandate, François Hollande has been mostly successful. However, no one in Mali or France would accept such a clear-cut statement of victory. Had Serval been fully successful, the need of a broader operation would be useless.

Understanding Operation Barkhane

Barkhane is a sand dune that is shaped like a crescent. To a large extent, Operation Barkhane is the necessary follow up of Serval. While the latter has mostly reconquered northern Mali and hunted Jihadi infrastructure and people there, the new operation has a more ambitious but yet only military task: ‘avoiding the reconstruction of Jihadi movements between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean’ to quote the French minister of defence. This operation will mobilise permanently French troops (including 1,000 in Mali) in five Sahelian countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad)3. A politically sensitive component of the operation is to train military forces of these five countries in counter-terrorism and associate them closely to any ground operations: it would be the main (and maybe sole) argument to dismiss the accusation of ‘being the gendarme of the continent’.

This operation being defined by a counter-terrorist mandate has no definite duration and may last years, if not decades. What Barkhane will use the most is the synergy between French conventional forces, Special Forces and Western intelligence. France expects cooperation of US agencies and Algeria, unofficially. The HQs of the operation will be Ndjamena (Chad) while Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) will be used for coordinating with allies’ agencies.

Operation Barkhane also embodies several recommendations stressed by the White Paper on Defence. It highlights the need for redefining French deployment on the continent and the new priority and importance given to Côte d’Ivoire compared to Gabon. To a large extent, it reflects as much the new threats in the Sahel as the decreasing relevance of Central Africa in the French perspective. It also gives a much more important role to Chad than in the past as Ndjamena is the HQs of the operation. This could be interpreted at different levels:

• Chad is being rewarded for its timely intervention in northern Mali;

• Boko Haram and the major threat it represents to many states like Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger in which France has strong economic interests.

Strategic and Political Issues

This operation also raises important political issues that have not been highlighted by leading French politicians. The multiplying effect that Western military presence on the continent will have for recruiting militant Islamists is an important issue. France may argue that the Operation Barkhane means light footing; however, reactions in Niger, when French Special Forces came to secure Areva facilities, were not proportional to the number of troops. A second assumption is that the mandate is realistic and time bound. The US was reluctant to fund an African force in Mali because the Obama Administration thought that terrorist groups were not numerous and strong enough to challenge existing regimes in the Sahel. This argument has still some validity as in Mauritania, Niger, Chad and maybe Burkina Faso; the army is more efficient than in Mali after the March 2012 coup. The French operation in Mali was expected to be complete in a matter of weeks, but lasted more than a year-and-a-half. The number of troops should have been reduced in a matter of months, but even in the summer of 2014, French troops are above 1,700. Paris maintains that the main Jihadi commanders are still in an area that encompasses northern Mali, South Algeria and Western Niger and could take refuge elsewhere for six months. Boko Haram and its alleged Ansaru split are indeed dangerous, but pundits raise doubts that they could be eradicated only by military means. France needs to define the other aspects of this operation more clearly.

International cooperation is another important issue. France usually laments that the European Union has no systemic interest in Africa. Acknowledging this concern does not imply that the EU will always react as it did after France intervened in Mali. Helping an ally is one thing, to decide to address problems that are seen as minor or benign is completely different. France may feel the need for much more robust political accompaniment.

François Hollande is silent about the political costs of this operation. In the 1980s, Western states helped build and consolidate dictatorships in many Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa in order to counter political Islam. The outcome was not only 9/11, but the inability of these dictators to offer an alternative to Islamism. The Western discourse on democratic values became simply inaudible and lost credibility. Is France repeating the same mistake?

Chad is a very good illustration of this problem. Idriss Déby Itno, besides being described as a crude dictator and a warlord who loots his own country, is seen as responsible for the disappearance (and likely killing) of the main opposition figure, Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, in February 2008. The latter was not only a charismatic leader, but a highly respected politician within the International Socialist Movement. Idriss Déby needed months to meet François Hollande with the help from Mali, which offered a way to rebuild an amicable connection with the Elysee, the French presidential palace.

The continuation of Operation Epervier for 27 years and cooperation that flourished under Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy enhanced military collaboration between France and Chad. Idriss Déby sent well trained troops to northern Mali: about 1,000 soldiers trained by the US counter-terrorism programme and the rest from the Presidential Guard. Washington promised to pay the expenses of the troops it had trained in the hope that their achievement in northern Mali would insulate AFRICOM from criticisms linked to the predicament of the Malian army.

More than 50 years after the independence of French colonies, French military intervention in its former African colonies is a question that remains unanswered. The financial crisis and its effects on the French budget are important considerations, especially since Operation Serval cost France €647 million in 2013. Another aspect of this financial dimension is the protection of the defence budget at a time when all other expenditures at the state level are being reduced. Without any explicit international backing of at least the EU, its military presence may lay the foundation for war propaganda that would mobilise Jihadists against the Western world. The cost/benefit analysis of the intervention may seem unconvincing at a time when other policies empower African institutions.

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Dr Roland Marchal

Dr Roland Marchal is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), based at Sciences-Po in Paris.

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    1 Available at

    2 Ceque nous allons faire si on les retrouve ?Les détruire», Press conference of François Hollande in Dubai, 15th January 2013.

    3 Forward advanced bases may include Nema (Mauritania), Gao (Mali), Agadez or Arlit (niger) and Zouar(Chad).

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