Post- reorganization of the French forces on the coast… Where does the power balance map go?

Rabaa Wazeer

Following more than eight years of cooperation between France and the African Sahel (coast) countries in the areas of security and counter-terrorism, the French government was able to provide the region with a number of troops to participate in military operations in light of the region’s limited capacity relative to the threat encountered. As a result of these actions, the French government has gained many economic and tourist interests, as well as confidence and cooperation with the Sahel countries. However, relations between the French government and the Malian state have recently seen many tensions and escalation, which have largely been reflected in the political accusations and records that have taken place between the two parties, most notably the fact that the head of finance accused the French government of training terrorist groups.


The French President, the French Army Minister, announced France’s move to adjust the military presence regime on the African coast in July 2021, emphasizing that reducing the military presence does not imply a total withdrawal. France will remain present in the region and will seek to support other international partners along the African coastline in order to support regional stability and security and combat armed groups, and the French government has already begun to issue decisions to withdraw some troops from the African coast.


What has already indicated that the state of the Sahel’s growing momentum raises many questions about where the map of the region’s balance of power is headed? Will current trends result in a greater role for private security firms? More importantly, is the French attempt to avoid a repeat of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan? That’s what we’re thinking of trying to do with the next vision.


Background to the French presence on the African coast (G-5)

The five African Sahel (5G) countries are (Burkina Faso-Mali-Niger-Chad-Mauritania), all of which are plagued by the presence of armed groups in various forms (Rebel movements, ethnic militias, criminal gangs, extremist terrorist groups and traffickers involved in smuggling). Violent extremist groups in the Sahel operate alongside, within, and across a wide range of cross-border criminal networks that have seen abundant returns over the last two decades. Gao, Timbuktu, Agadez, and Gat have been and still to be important trade centers.


The Sahel States continue to suffer from low levels of education, low employment opportunities, high unemployment, persistent food shortages caused by extreme climate change, financial and economic corruption, low levels of income, and high levels of poverty at the institutional and governmental levels.


French presence on the African coast

With the outbreak of the first security threats in the African Sahel region of Mali and the escalation of the influence of armed groups, such as the escalation of the threat of “Tuareg” groups in the north of the country, and their involvement in confrontations with the armed forces of Mali, which suffered significant losses as a result of the superiority of the Tuareg defense and weapons systems, the country experienced a wave of protests that began in March 2012. As a result, France managed in December 2012 to issue Resolution No. 2085 from the UN Security Council to allow its military forces to intervene in the region in order to support the Sahel States and reduce the threats they encounter.


As a part of the French side’s trend towards strengthening the military forces in the Sahel, action was taken in August 2014 to implement the so-called Barkhane military operation, which aimed to deploy 3,000 troops in the five Sahel countries to replace Operation Serval. These forces were equipped with the necessary military equipment and were given the right to work across borders to pursue terrorists.


According to statistics from Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs in the 2019 report, the French military successfully deployed 5.100 troops, trained 7.000 African soldiers, funded 12 development projects in Sahel countries, and carried out approximately 750 combat and training activities while in their mission.


Between the African rage and European accusations, an introduction to the plan to reorganize France’s presence on the African coast.

There are a number of factors that led the French government to change its plan in the African Sahel, including the failure of Barkhane mission, the escalation of demonstrations and protests calling for the withdrawal of French forces as the French presence in Africa was the other face of colonialism, in addition to the French authorities’ support for inheritance in violation of the constitutions of African countries, which infuriated Europeans.


The foregoing represents a subset of the motivations that prompted the French government to announce the reorganization of its military presence in the Sahel region on June 10, 2021, as part of its concerns that the situation in the Sahel would deteriorate significantly, jeopardizing its interests. The French Ministry of Armies has issued a decision to reduce the number of French soldiers in the Sahel region (2000 to 3000 troops by 2023), emphasizing that this does not imply a total French withdrawal from the African coast.


Is the French scenario as the same as the American scenario in withdrawing from Afghanistan?

The French withdrawal scenario may be similar to that of the United States of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, particularly since French forces suffered a significant loss in 2021. As a result, the fear that the American scenario could be replicated in Afghanistan has grown. The French approach could lead to an alliance of some armed groups, reverting the balance of power to jihadists, similar to the situation in Afghanistan. The French actions sparked the same fears in the European Community about a repeat of Afghanistan’s experience, as well as concerns about the migration of extremist movements to Europe.


Does the French approach lead to continued escalation with Algeria?

The impact of France’s adoption of the plan for force reorganization would have an impact on the escalation of relations between the two parties, as the two states continue to suffer from the escalation of the crisis. As a result of the French withdrawal, the Algerian government will face significant pressure, especially since Algeria is a strong candidate to bridge the security gap due to its proximity and geographical interdependence. Indeed, it may be necessary to take steps to strengthen its role in the region, such as amending the Constitution to allow the President to send military forces to the country’s border if necessary. Moreover, to carry out air patrols in northern Mali. It is possible that it will proceed to conclude border security agreements with other countries, such as the United States.


Does the decline of the French presence in the transformation of the coast’s balance map pave the way for private security firms?

We can say that France’s strategy of reducing forces on the coast could be the gateway to actions and deals for private security firms, especially as they scramble for opportunities in conflict zones around the world, and that it was the first option for Bamako government to fill the gap left by the French presence in light of the growing threats to the Sahel States and their regular forces inability to confront the armed groups and terrorists.


Does the coast’s power map change avails China and Russia?

Given France’s trend towards a reduction in its military presence in Africa, it is expected that the road will be further paved for Chinese and Russian power in Africa, especially since the association between these countries  not linked to a colonial memory. As a result, they will be warmly welcomed, and their presence will not be based solely on military, development, and economic considerations. More importantly, once the French presence decreases, there will be no rival in the region.


To sum up, the Sahel region is a strategic region marked by unprecedented levels of violence, terrorism, international and regional competition for wealth, and so on. It is difficult to find solutions to deep-rooted crises in the short and medium term. Indeed, the region may face significant security challenges as the French presence declines and other parties to the emergence of new powers.

As a result, a new strategy to combat the growing proliferation of terrorist groups, organized criminal groups, and all forms of terrorist and armed organizations is required.

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