Paris (CNSNews.com) – The recent accidental deaths of 13 French soldiers in Mali focused attention on the country’s six-year-old counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel, but President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to win support for the mission from NATO allies bore no obvious fruit.
The 960-word declaration issued at the end of the two-day NATO summit in London made no reference to the operation in the five countries – Mali, Niger, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso – but spoke in general terms about the threat of terrorism and the fact instability beyond NATO members’ borders contributes to “irregular migration.”
“We stand firm in our commitment to the fight against terrorism and are taking stronger action together to defeat it,” it said.
In a press conference at the end of the summit, Macron said that the legitimacy of French operation in the Sahel region was clear in his view “because it is an element of our collective security.”
He said he had raised during the summit “the need to form a new coalition with our European partners.”
A number of E.U. countries already have troops in the region, some with a U.N. peacekeeping force and some with an E.U. mission training the Malian army.
Estonia, which has 50 troops security a base in Mali, recently offered to increase the size of its contingent to 95 personnel. A new special forces unit is to be deployed in the Sahel in 2020, with the Czech Republic having confirmed its participation.
Before the summit began, Macron said – in the context of the fight against jihadists in Africa – that “a greater involvement of allies would be quite beneficial.”
And, speaking at a ceremony in Paris in memory of the 13 soldiers, who were killed in an helicopter collision, he said that, “A true commitment to security is not enough but a true alliance means to act, not stick to words.”
He called for “a greater involvement from partners in the fight against terrorism, particularly in the Sahel region.”
The Elysee palace said in a statement afterwards Macron’s appeal was directed primarily at Europeans.
On the summit sidelines Macron met Tuesday with President Trump, who paid his “respects to the great warriors that you lost in Mali.”
“Please give my condolences to the families and to France,” he told Macron. “And they’re great fighters. You’ve done a fantastic job in that whole area. It’s a tough area. So we appreciate it very much.”
Macron has invited the presidents of the five Sahel countries for talks in southern France in mid-December to discuss the future of the mission, known as Operation Barkhane.
It was launched in 2013 by then-President François Hollande, initially in Mali, to repel Islamist armed groups, with the aim of countering ISIS, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram in the former French colonies. Today there are 4,500 French troops deployed there.
The deaths of the soldiers has raised new questions at home about the goal and effectiveness of the operation.
“After the tributes and the mourning, we will have to ask ourselves about the future and the modalities of the French intervention,” a reporter wrote in the Nice Matin newspaper. “Where does Operation Barkhane go?”
Caroline Roussy, a researcher at IRIS geopolitics think-tank, said the operation lacks clear objectives, while “the threat of the jihadists is becoming more diffuse and diverse.”
Speaking to the French daily 20 Minutes, she voiced concern about rising anti-French resentment in the region, saying that “any army staying in a country for too long ends up being seen as an occupying force.”
Macron has played down concerns of anti-French feeling voiced by some politicians in the African countries.
“They need to be clear about our presence,” he said. “We are there for security, not for other reason.”
French politicians have mostly not questioned the presence of French troops in the Sahel.
An exception is Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the leftist Rebellious France movement, who is pushing for a parliamentary debate and commission of inquiry into the operation.
“It is time to wonder what we are doing there,” he wrote on his blog, saying the legislature should examine the campaign “that has been decided by one person” – a reference to Hollande.
IRIS researcher Serge Michailof has compared the situation in the Sahel with the conflict in Afghanistan, saying in a recent radio interview that while there were some initial successes, today French troops face not just jihadists determined to sow chaos “but thoughtful men who have adopted a classic asymmetrical strategy quite similar to that adopted in Afghanistan by the Taliban.”