Though most of the troops and materiel for France’s new counterterrorism mission, Opération Barkhane, are already on the ground in Africa, it would be a mistake to characterize the mission as mere reshuffling of French military assets in the region. As an operation committed to actively hunting Al Qaeda-linked militants across five countries in Sahel, Barkhane represents a stunning rejection of recent French policy toward the continent and could radically alter security dynamics throughout the region.
French government officials have been publicizing their plans to launch a new counterterrorism initiative in the Sahel, code-named Opération Barkhane, for the better part of a month. The mission will consist of over 3,000 troops spread across five countries, who, according to The Economist, will be supported by 20 supply helicopters, ten transport aircraft, six fighter planes, three drones, and 200 armored vehicles.
Although the bulk of the forces and equipment required for Barkhane are already on the ground in Africa, it would be a mistake to characterize the operation as a mere reshuffling of French military assets in the region. In fact, Barkhanerepresents a stunning rejection of recent French policy toward Africa, which in turn was meant to be a departure from France’s previous post-colonial posture toward the continent.
“The objective is principally one of counterterrorism,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Paris last month. “The aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffic to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups can rebuild themselves between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean.”
The operation is likely to deepen existing counterterrorism cooperation between France and Mauritania, as well as strengthen partnerships with Burkina Faso, from where France already carries out operations crucial to its counterterrorism efforts in the region.
Early indications are that approximately 1,200 troops will be based in N’Djamena, Chad, where France has maintained an uninterrupted presence since 1986 as part of Opération Épervier. Another 1,000 troops will remain in Gao, Mali, the launching pad for Opération Serval, France’s recently-concluded mission to drive Islamist rebels from northern Mali that began in January of last year.
Other troops will operate from of a constellation of forward-operating bases and sites in Mali and Chad, as well as Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.
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