Sahel: France to further strengthen Barkhane, Takuba ‘fully operational by autumn’

"From a tactical point of view, this is what gives us hope that we will reach a tipping point," General François Lecointre says

France will further bolster its Operation Barkhane force in the Sahel, and the new international Task Force Takuba will be fully operational by the autumn, the country’s most senior military officer said on Wednesday, January 22.

The Chief of the General Staff of the French Armed Forces General François Lecointre told reporters in Paris he would detail the “profile and composition” of the proposed troop buildup to President Emmanuel Macron in coming days.

Announcements are expected on January 29, media reported.

France recently reinforced Barkhane with 220 soldiers “who were on short-term missions in Côte d’Ivoire,” Lecointre said. Further reinforcements will be accompanied by “additional logistical and intelligence” support, said Lecointre, with efforts concentrated on the Liptako-Gourma region of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

“Today in this extremely vast zone, the means at Operation Barkhane’s disposal are not sufficient for us to have soldiers deployed 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.

During a hearing in the National Assembly in November, Lecointre argued that Barkhane was significantly short of personnel. According to a transcript published this week, Lecointre said that once logistical, support and force protection personnel and forces stationed in Chad were discounted, he had “a maximum of 2,000 men … in this immense space, which is very little.”

“What France is doing through its intervention in the Sahel is a miracle of efficiency,” he said at the time. “We must keep repeating this.”

Concern over spread from Sahel to coastal states

The French military presence in the Sahel began in 2013 with Operation Serval in Mali, and evolved in August 2014 into Operation Barkhane, which has a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the region. Roughly 4,500 French troops are deployed, and they focus activity in insurgent-hit MaliNiger and Burkina Faso, working alongside local troops and other international operations, including the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S) and the United Nations stabilization mission in Mali, MINUSMA.

Last week, Macron and the leaders of the G5 Sahel states announced a new Coalition for the Sahel which will see increased coordination between French and local forces focused on the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border zone and targeting Islamic State as a priority. The new Sahel Coalition will see Barkhane and FCG5S forces operating under joint command.

The six leaders also urged the United States to remain militarily engaged in the counter-terror fight in West Africa, after the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, had earlier said that resources “could be reduced and then shifted” to the U.S. or the Pacific region.

Operation Barkhane Bourgou 4
French forces deployed to Operation Barkhane during Operation Bourgou IV, November 2019. Image: État-major des armées

U.S. forces based in Niger provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to their partners in the Sahel, as well as crucial air-to-air refueling.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in November that he was “deeply concerned about the spiraling violence in the Sahel, which has spread to coastal States of West Africa, along the Gulf of Guinea.” He had warned in July of a potential expansion of the insurgency to Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire.

The presidents of Senegal and Togo this week urged the U.S. to stay in the fight in West Africa.

“If one actor leaves the chain, it weakens the whole group,” Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé told the Washington Post.

Gnassingbé said militants from Iraq and Syria are traveling to the region through Libya, and that “thousands” of fighters have reached West Africa since the fall of Islamic State in Syria.

Standing up Task Force Takuba

France has for months been trying to build support for a new international special operations task force called “Takuba.” Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said in November that France expected the new force to deploy in Mali by 2020.

Estonia was the first French partner to confirm a deployment to Takuba. A defense ministry spokesperson told The Defense Post in November that special forces will deploy to Mali in the second half of 2020 and that force will “assist, advise and accompany” the Malian Armed Forces. Belgium and the Czech Republic have also signaled that they will participate, but the U.S. and Germany have declined.

Discussions with Finland, Norway and Sweden are ongoing, according to French radio station RTL. Sweden’s defense minister accompanied his French counterpart on a trip to the region earlier this week.

Update January 23 Norway is “currently considering” a request from the French and Malian authorities to contribute to Takuba, Ministry of Defence spokesperson Marita Hundershagen told The Defense Post.

Finland has also received a request, but Ministry of Defence spokesperson Kristian Vakkuri told The Defense Post that they “cannot confirm any interest by Finland towards this initiative” and the ministry “has not made any decisions on this matter.”

The French plans for a new Sahel task force were first reported in early October. At the time it was said that the aim is to improve basic training for Sahelien military forces, beginning with Mali, freeing up Barkhane personnel and enabling them to focus on pursuing insurgents and preventing attacks.

In the November National Assembly hearing, Lecointre said that the intention had been for Barkhane to first focus on Liptako before switching to the Gourma, but FAMa alone was insufficient to maintain security in the Liptako.

“It seems to us today to be urgent to go into the Gourma” while leaving Malian armed forces accompanied and assisted by European special forces in Liptako, Lecointre said.

He said France’s allies, who were “disengaging their own special forces from Afghanistan, are happy to come and join us in operational actions,” and to work alongside French special forces.

But he cautioned that it would be “a perilous operation, because this force will be made up partly of Malian troops who are neither very well equipped nor very well trained, and partly of well-trained and well-equipped European forces.”

According to RTL, there will be two linked forces named “Sabre”: the existing Sabre unit composed of French special forces will intensify its tracking and targeting of insurgents, while Takuba – referring to a curved saber-like sword from the region – will advise, assist and accompany Malian forces.

Takuba will be led by a French general, but the general staff will be European and the force, which will accompany FAMa “on the front line,” according to RTL, will comprise around 500 soldiers.

Le Monde also reported that France hopes that 500 soldiers will join Takuba and they will accompany the Malians in combat.

Lecointre said on Wednesday that Takuba will declare initial military capability in the summer and “will be fully operational by the autumn.”

“From a tactical point of view, this is what gives us hope that we will reach a tipping point,” Lecointre said, while conceding he foresaw a “long engagement.”

“I do not think, despite this boost, we will be able to claim victory by year’s end,” he said.

Lecointre lamented the months-long process to develop Takuba, singling out the slow pace within the European Union. “I find it a little slow to get going. It is now seven months since I wrote a letter, together with the general commanding the European [training] mission in Mali and the American head of AFRICOM, asking the E.U. to do a more comprehensive job of accompanying the armies, and not just training them. A lot of time is being wasted.”

On Monday, the E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said after a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council that there was agreement “on the absolute urgency of the matter. The situation has deteriorated enormously.”

In November, his predecessor Federica Mogherini said that the bloc would “increase our presence and improve the level of support we are giving to our Sahel partners.”

Estonia troops in Mali
Estonia troops from the Estpla-32 infantry unit deployed to Operation Barkhane in Mali patrol near Gao, November 1, 2019. Image: Kaitsevägi

Noting that the E.U. is “a key player in the field of security” in the Sahel, Borrell said that it is “absolutely essential to do more, and that will be the subject of an international conference on the margins of the next European Council meeting on March 26.

Barkhane already has an international dimension, with France’s European partners contributing troops and equipment. Denmark deployed two Merlin helicopters that became operational in late December and Estonia is to almost double the size of its Barkhane contingentChinook transport helicopters from the United Kingdom also support the operation.

Islamist insurgents in the Sahel

The complex insurgency in the Sahel began in Mali in 2012, when a Tuareg separatist uprising was exploited by al-Qaeda-linked extremists who took key cities in the desert north. Former colonial power France began its Operation Serval military intervention the following year, driving the jihadists from the towns.

But the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Many armed groups including Islamic State are active in the Sahel region, but the majority of attacks are attributed to JNIM, which formed in March 2017 from a merger of several smaller groups. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Since May 2019, ISIS has attributed insurgent activities in the Sahel area to ISWAP, its West Africa Province affiliate that split from Boko Haram in 2016, rather than to Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. ISWAP’s main area of operations is the Lake Chad area of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

With reporting from AFP

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