After Barkhane: What France’s military drawdown means for the Sahel

Emmanuel Macron took allies by surprise when he announced the end of Operation Barkhane. But his new plans do not appear to offer the change of tack the Sahel needs.

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At the tail-end of a lengthy press conference last month Emmanuel Macron announced a significant change to French policy in the Sahel. France, he said, would end the pan-Sahelian Operation Barkhane in its current form. The numbers of French troops in the region would be cut over the course of several years. In its place, a new international coalition with significant French contributions and leadership would take on responsibility for counter-terrorism operations and security force training and assistance in the Sahel.

Macron made the announcement without consulting European and international partners, including those G7 and NATO leaders who he was shortly to see in Cornwall and Brussels. He left key details to be determined “in the coming weeks.”

It had already been a difficult few months for France in the Sahel. As a consequence of late May’s “coup within a coup” in Mali, and of the absence of political and security progress in the region, France had already suspended military cooperation with Mali’s armed forces, including joint operations and training. It is true that an eventual reduction of French troops in the region, and a shift in focus and deployment of Operation Barkhane, have been expected in some form since at least the 2020 Pau Summit. But Macron’s palpable frustration with the lack of progress in Mali was undoubtedly a factor. Just after the May coup, Macron told the Journal du Dimanche of his message to Sahelian leaders that France would not continue working with “a country where there was no democratic legitimacy or transition”.

The transformation of Barkhane reflects unmet French demands that states in the region take on greater security and governance responsibilities for themselves, particularly following Mali’s August 2020 coup and the subsequent coup in May 2021. But such demands shift the blame from the wider failure of the international community to help stop the spread of instability in the Sahel. The security and development practices that external actors – including both French and European states and international organisations more broadly – have followed over the years have often been short term in nature. They have also sometimes undermined efforts at burden-sharing, stabilisation, and any hope of the kinds of deep political reforms needed to help regional states overcome the challenges to their own populations and institutions.

Barkhane as a linchpin

French forces form a central pillar of military engagements currently active in the Sahel, with Barkhane acting as a node for operations for a range of partners in Mali and throughout the region. While Barkhane’s principal role is as the French expeditionary counter-terror force, it provides important intelligence and logistical capacities that are critical to all the other military operations in the Sahel: the UN Peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the G5 Sahel states. The end of Barkhane as an “external operation” – combined with a reorganisation of planning, command, and security assets whose details are still unspecified – will therefore have an important impact on any further operations, especially for Malian and MINUSMA forces. And a push towards burden-sharing without careful planning and coordination also puts any continued operations at risk – as exemplified by Task Force Takuba.

Takuba was formally established in 2020 in part to continue the work that the EU Training Mission (EUTM) is unable to perform. EUTM provides largely basic training to Malian armed forces, but restrictions against deploying European personnel in field operations to accompany the troops they train has limited its impact and durability. Takuba is meant to fill this gap by carrying out operations while continuing training and accompanying Malian and potentially other regional forces in the field after the initial EUTM training.

For many European governments involved in MINUSMA, the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy missions, or Task Force Takuba, the current extent of their military involvement already pushes up against political limits at home and they will now be considering their own presence in the region, particularly if these forces come under increasing pressure from jihadist forces. Macron’s announcement that Task Force Takuba will take on a more direct counter-terrorism mission will not necessarily be accepted by the governments supporting the mission. Such a change could negatively impact on the training and accompaniment of regional forces the mission was intended to accomplish.

The failure of development

The future drawdown, reorganisation, and realignment of international forces will also directly affect the various development and stabilisation projects put in place by the international community in the Sahel, many of which fall under the auspices of the Sahel Alliance. Development projects need security combined with improved governance and government presence in order to be effective. A drawdown taking place without any clarity about how to combine security with governance and stabilisation work will only make these programmes more difficult, and also make it harder to maintain effective pressure where needed, particularly in Mali.

France and the international community cannot simply replace states and make up for failures to govern effectively and fairly, as Macron himself has emphasised. However, France and its partners have often failed to make real pushes for regional accountability in the face of abuses and deleterious policies that undermine governance in the first place. International strategies in the region also often pay lip service to improving governance, while in practice failing to address many of the political, security, and economic limits on Sahelian state capacity and governance. The “civilian surge” promised in February after the N’Djamena Summit to complement military efforts in the region has also so far failed to materialise.

For many European governments, the current extent of their military involvement in the Sahel already pushes up against political red lines at home

At his press conference, Macron made clear that, despite the planned reduction in French troops and the internationalisation of new initiatives, French forces would still provide the “backbone” of military efforts in the Sahel, though without explaining what this would mean in practice. The new, yet-to-be-determined formation would maintain a strong counter-terrorism focus (already a core Barkhane mission) structured around the French-led, multinational Task Force Takuba as well as an expanded EUTM that will increasingly cover Burkina Faso and Niger.

Any shift in the structure and size of French forces will likely happen only slowly. Reports indicate that troop reductions may start in September, with further reductions over the next few years, with some bases closed and other forces concentrated at larger bases such as that at Gao. The shrinking of French conventional forces and the Europeanisation (or even wider internationalisation) of military and training operations in the Sahel was part of the reason for the creation of Task Force Takuba in the first place.

As fewer forces in the region focus more strictly on counter-terrorism, and with a training and accompaniment approach that has so far failed to improve security and stability in the region, security will be even harder to come by. This is the case even as French forces continue successful counter-terrorism operations against jihadist leaders. Coordinated and clear policies are necessary now as France rearranges its military presence in the region. This is all the more so when trying to shift to a focus on governance – something that will require more than just the “return of the state” that many regional and international leaders describe. Instead, profound changes to Sahelian states are necessary for this improved governance, changes that Sahelian citizens also demand. An ill-coordinated drawdown and ad hoc coalition building risks the worst of all worlds, creating political and security costs for Europe while hindering chances to improve international and regional coordination and removing ways to work with, or pressure, Sahelian states to pursue much-needed changes.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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