The launch of Operation Barkhane across the Sahel last month marked a significant shift in France’s relationship with the region and its attitude to counter-terrorism. French strategy has now demonstrably shifted from previous attempts to scale-down its presence in countries such as Chad and Mali.
The new military strategy is a conscious re-engagement and appears to show that France envisages a military victory against the constantly morphing Islamist threat.
The decision to base the operation in the Chadian capital N’Djamena is also interesting, given Chad’s geographical position, which is considerably east of what is generally seen as the epicentre of the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) jihadist threat in northern Mali and northern Niger and southern Algeria.
It also suggests that assets deployed under Barkhane will also be used to help combat the threat posed by the Nigerian islamist group Boko Haram, which has been steadily expanding its activities beyond the borders of north-east Nigeria.
“There’s not much choice for a base [for Barkhane]” says Jerome Tubiana, an analyst for the International Crisis group, “It’s the only (still) stable country in the Sahel and the only one with a “˜proper’ army and a well-established French garrison.”
The second reason seems to be political – to acknowledge the role the Chadian armed forces (the ANT) played in supporting France’s battle against AQIM and its splinter Islamist movements in northern Mali. With barely a moment’s hesitation, Chad sent 2000 troops to support Operation Serval in early 2013.
The Chadian troops, well-practised in desert warfare after their efforts to stabilise the country’s remote eastern region during the Darfur crisis, provided essential support to France and had a number of important successes, including killing one of the top Al-Qaeda commanders, Abou Zeid. More than 30 Chadian soldiers died in the operation.
The fact that French president Francois Hollande chose to visit Chad and not Mali on his July visit to the Sahel speaks volumes about the two countries’ relationship. “France is now repaying its political debt, and Idriss Deby has re-enforced Chad’s position as a strategic and reliable partner against Islamist terror” says Sergei Boeke, a Research Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism.
Operation Barkhane is essentially a re-organisation of France’s forces across West Africa, rather than a significant new deployment. It will total about 3000 military personnel across five new and expanded bases – Chad (under French General Palasset), Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. They will be equipped with six Rafale Mirage jets, 2000 armoured vehicles, ten transport aircraft and three drones..
There seem to be two main reasons for basing Barkhane in Chad. First, the country has a decent military infrastructure, including a current French base at N’Djamena airport. “˜Operation Epervier’ was established in Chad in the late 1980s at the end of the Chadian/Libyan war; it comprised around 800 French troops in N’Djamena and a smaller contingent in Abeche to the east and Faya-Largeau in the north.
Epervier – which has now been absorbed into Barkhane – also had a number of Mirage jets and Breguet reconnaissance craft stationed at the airport, which were used in the mid-2000s to provide the Chadian authorities with aerial surveillance on two serious rebel attacks advancing from the east.