President of France Emmanuel Macron announced the end of Operation Barkhane in June, winding down a nine-year counterinsurgency military operation and stirring doubt about the future of counterterrorism in Africa’s Sahel region.

Origins of the Insurgency

About a decade ago, an Islamist insurgency in Mali, a country in West Africa, took root in the north before spreading to other parts of the Sahel, a transitional region between the Sahara Desert and savannah further south.

The insurgents were primarily from the Tuareg, a people group that inhabits the western Sahel and Sahara. After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, many of his heavily armed Tuareg mercenaries returned home to Mali and revived the fight for the independence of Mali’s northern region by forming the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.

Displeased with the handling of the rebellion, Mali’s military deposed their president, Amadou Toumani Touré, the following year.

The turmoil surrounding Touré’s fall enabled the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and Ansar Dine, an Islamist terrorist group, to seize much of northern Mali. Ansar Dine then sidelined the secessionists and united with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliate, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.

France Intervenes

The chaotic situation in northern Mali and increased terrorist activity in central Mali prompted France’s military to intervene in 2013. Dubbed Operation Serval, the intervention staved off the extremists’ advances towards Mali’s capital city, Bamako, but failed to prevent the spread of terrorism within and outside the country.

The French mission broadened its scope to all the Sahel in 2014 with the start of Operation Barkhane, Operation Serval’s successor. Operation Barkhane focuses on joint operations with local forces from the members of the Group of Five for the Sahel: Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.

French troops under Operation Barkhane number around 5,100. The peacekeeping Mission of the United Nations in Mali and the European Union Training Mission in Mali also support the G5 Sahel.

The efficacy of Operation Barkhane is mixed. French forces have killed thousands of fighters and some terrorist leaders, sowing disorder among their ranks and restricting and even pushing back the Islamist presence. 

Terrorist attacks on civilians and other targets throughout the region have nevertheless increased during Operation Barkhane’s existence. Deaths in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger’s conflicts rose from 456 to 6,276, or 1,376%, from 2014 to 2020.

A Change of Course

Regardless, French operations are the backbone of counterterrorism efforts in the region. A complete withdrawal would have hamstrung those efforts.

Paris announced that Operation Barkhane’s unwinding does not mean an end to France’s military presence in the Sahel. Instead, it signals a greater emphasis on cooperation with local forces instead of active military engagement.

Operation Barkhane will officially end the first quarter of 2022, bringing the closure some French bases and a gradual troop drawdown, potentially to 2,500 by 2023. France’s special forces will focus on targeted counterterrorism operations.

Macron also highlighted the development of an “international alliance and military operation,” emphasizing greater responsibility for local forces and involvement from the international community. European engagement will likely come via Operation Takuba, a European joint military task force that France has championed. However, many details remain unclear.

France’s apparent dissatisfaction with Sahelian forces and governments seems to have played into its decision. As Macron stated when announcing the end of Operation Barkhane, “We cannot secure areas that relapse into lawlessness because states decide not to take responsibility.”

He also condemned unofficial negotiations between terrorist groups and local forces. In June, he suspended France’s joint military operations with Mali after the country’s second coup in a year, before resuming them early last month.

An Uncertain Future

The restructuring of France’s approach comes at a time of increased instability in the Sahel, as Mali’s two recent coups and the death of Chad’s longtime President Idriss Deby in April have further unsettled the region. This should concern any American: Sahelian terrorist groups feed off such instability and are growing in strength.

Nearly a decade into the insurgency, however, a reevaluation may be in order. Perhaps France’s new approach will rally the Sahelian countries to develop the capabilities needed to defend their region. If not, even another decade of French counterterrorism will be inadequate to resolve the problem.

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