More than six months after the announcement of the official end of Operation Barkhane, where is the French military posture in the Sahel? While Operation Barkhane counted up to 5,500 men at the height of its deployment, the French army left Mali in August 2022, after nine years of presence, pushed by the ruling junta, which is now working – even if she denies it – with the sulphurous Russian paramilitary group Wagner. The French executive and general staff claim to have learned from their mistakes and have been trying in recent months to put into practice a new approach which consists of "acting in support and not in place" of partner countries. The challenges of this transformation are immense.
Example, in Niger, where a discreet partnership has gradually been put in place, tailored to the demands of Niamey. "In Niger and even globally everywhere in Africa, the philosophical position is different from what was done in Mali. Today, our aid starts first from the need of the partner", summarizes the commander of the French forces in the Sahel (FFS), General Bruno Baratz, in office for 10 months, in an interview with Agence France-Presse.
A change of paradigm necessary after the departure from Mali of the French soldiers of Operation Barkhane, under the pressure of a hostile junta. But not only. Neighboring Burkina Faso, also led by putschist soldiers, demanded in January the withdrawal of French special forces from its territory and is in Wagner's sights.
To lessen the flank of criticism against the military presence in Africa of the former colonial power, President Emmanuel Macron has ordered action strictly adhering to the specific demands of the countries concerned and remaining low noise.
An instruction respected to the letter in Niger, which accepts in return 1,500 French soldiers on its soil to increase its armies, while the Islamic State group in the Sahara (EIS) has regained the hair of the beast on the Malo border -Nigerian. "Niger serves as a laboratory for the French army for its renewed approach", sums up Michael Shurkin, American expert specializing in the tricolor military world. “France was waging its own war parallel to what the Malian armed forces were doing. Today she wants to do things differently. »
Staying on the second line, however, requires a "debarkhanization of minds", slips a French officer, recalling that an entire generation of soldiers tracked down jihadist groups for a decade in the Sahelian sands, in much more autonomous conditions than today. .
Engaged in a rise in power of their armed forces (FAN), which should reach 50,000 men in 2025 then 100,000 in 2030, Niger seems satisfied. “Today the command is Nigerian, master of the terrain and of the needs. We can only congratulate ourselves. The French bring us the military training, equipment, intelligence, and air resources that we lack, "said the former Nigerien Minister of Defense (2016-2019), Kalla Moutari, to AFP. “We need to leverage their presence and that of other partners, as the threat increasingly takes root in central Mali and to the east and spills over into Niger. »
While Niger previously served mainly as a transit base for operations in Mali, the French have reinforced their presence there and detached hundreds of men to the south-west of the country, near the Malian border.
The Franco-Nigerian operation Almahaou, in the Tillaberi region, has already produced positive effects, argues Colonel Grégoire Servent, commander of the French projected air base (BAP) in Niamey. “We have gone from 33% of cultivated land in this area a year ago to 65% today. This area is considered a priority because it is the breadbasket of the country. »
Cooperation works all the better because "Niger has a particularly effective counter-insurgency strategy", which aims to "secure the populations and allow the return of the State to areas contested by terrorist groups", added the general. Baratz.
In Mali, despite undeniable French tactical victories against armed groups, the political power has never managed to reestablish its authority in the semi-desert areas raked by Barkhane. And the national army (FAMa) has remained fragile, despite efforts to toughen it up for years.
From now on, the fields of cooperation extend to the air domain, according to the needs of Niger. “The BAP, during the time of Barkhane, had much less interaction with Nigeriens. A shift really took place with the withdrawal of Mali, "says the combat partnership deputy, Lieutenant-Colonel Fabien.
French drones and fighter planes take off daily from Niamey to support Nigerien operations on the ground. And a seminar recently brought together French and Nigeriens on the use of their respective drones – American Reaper for the first, Turkish Bayraktar for the others. "As the Nigerien army increases in power, the objective is to adapt our system downwards", promises the commander of the French forces in the Sahel.
The general idea is to be as light as possible. With the A400M transport aircraft, it is quite easy to reinforce a device on an ad hoc basis. It is possible to imagine being less present, to only keep what is necessary to meet the training and partnership needs of these countries. Some are more demanding joint exercises and training, over short periods, rather than having large permanent contingents of French soldiers at home.
It's kind of the model we want to promote: no longer being visible over the long term. The French paratroopers, for example, have just carried out an operation in Niger and they immediately leave for France.
We are about 2,500 in the Sahel, including 1,500 in Niger and 1,000 in Chad. As the Nigerien army increases in strength, the objective is to adapt our system downwards. In 2025, the Niger Armed Forces (FAN) will already have solid capabilities, especially since Niger has a particularly effective counter-insurgency strategy. Other Western partners are also on their side.