Paris (CNSNews.com) – The counter-terrorism campaign that saw four U.S. special forces soldiers killed in Niger early this month has cost the lives of at least 17 French soldiers since France launched the operation across the vast arid region known as the Sahel in 2013.
Last weekend, 12 Nigerien gendarme were killed by terrorists in the same area where the four Americans were ambushed near the Niger-Mali border on October 4.
“Our country has once again been the subject of an attack by terrorist groups, an attack which unfortunately resulted in a significant number of casualties,” Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou said in a statement.
Despite the deaths of foreign and local troops in the Sahel, the issue does not receive a lot of attention from French politicians.
Senator Nathalie Goulard, who has presided over an inquiry into jihadist networks in France and Europe, says the French are more concerned with local problems such as the return to France of French jihadists following the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa, Syria.
“They are preoccupied with what to do with these French jihadists when they'll be back here,” Goulard said. “And they are also hopeful Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will do more to help in the fight against terrorism in North Africa”. Al-Sisi visited Paris last week amid protests from human rights organizations.
But why is France still present in Mali?
There are currently 4,000 French soldiers based in the so-called G5 Sahel countries of Niger, Mali, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, under Operation Barkhane, a mission aimed at countering ISIS, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram in West Africa. The operation was launched by then-President François Hollande in Mali to repel Islamist armed groups in 2013.
The mission’s main aim is to secure France and Europe by securing the Sahel region.
But Leslie Varenne, director of the Institute for Monitoring and Studying International and Strategic Relations, says most people in Mali at least oppose the operation as they see it as a recolonization of the country.
“Operation Barkhane is a failure as Mali has never been so insecure,” she wrote in a study over the summer. Varenne insists, along with other experts, the economic development and education is the key, offering the only to make the country safe and eradicate any forms of terrorism.
The five African countries themselves have launched a new multinational force to fight armed groups in the Sahel region, operating with U.N. peacekeeping forces in Mali and troops from other allied nations.
According to U.S. Africa Command, some 800 U.S. troops are in Niger, most supporting the construction efforts at a drone air base in Agadez and supporting the U.S. Embassy in Niamey, but with a small number advising and assisting Nigerien troops.
Germany has also sent 1,000 more troops to Mali as part of the U.N. mission launched in July 2013 to stabilize the country. Paris hopes that Germany will provide greater support, particularly in logistics, to the troops involved, and more specifically to those of the Sahel countries.
The French military estimates that there are 300 to 500 terrorists in northern Mali alone. Operation Barkhane declared mission is to neutralize the jihadists and help countries’ armed forces to better defend their territory.
Experts say the terrorist ranks are continually being replenished because of the chaos in Libya, which borders both Niger and Chad. Jihadist leaders also frequently take refuge in Algeria, which shares long borders with Niger and Mali.
Alongside the military element, France is also carrying out development projects in the region, aimed at dissuading young people from joining the jihadists.
François Loncle, a French former lawmaker who retired in June after a last trip to the region, said the French military engagement in the Sahel is likely to last for years.
Withdrawing the troops, he said, would risk destabilizing all the countries of the region, and would mean the terrorist threat will not be eradicated.
France has been investing heavily in the region and its military operation cost several hundred million euros per year. The European Union has promised 50 million euros ($58 million) and French President Emmanuel Macron has asked the G5 Sahel governments to also contribute financially to the campaign.