Sweden plans contribution to France-led Task Force Takuba in Mali

The Swedish contribution will "likely include personnel and helicopters from the Special Forces"

The Swedish Armed Forces has begun planning for a possible deployment including helicopters to the new France-led special operations Task Force Takuba in Mali, following a request from the government.

“Exactly what the Swedish contribution will look like is still too early to say, but it will likely include personnel and helicopters from the Special Forces,” the armed forces headquarters said in a Wednesday, February 5 release.

Both government and parliament must approve the plans.

The announcement comes less than three weeks after Sweden’s Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist accompanied his French counterpart Florence Parly on a visit to Chad and Mali. Hultqvist later told SVT that France had requested a contribution to Takuba but that no government decision had been made. “This is something that we will have to prepare,” he said.

More than 200 Swedish military personnel are already deployed to multinational missions in Mali, in the heart of sub-Saharan Africa’s Sahel region.

Lieutenant General Dennis Gyllensporre serves as Force Commander of MINUSMA, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali. Sweden contributed an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability based at Camp Nobel in Timbuktu until December, and according to U.N. figures, 203 soldiers, 12 staff officers and six police officers were deployed.

The Swedish contingent will move to the large shared camp at Gao, which is also home to the only permanent base in Mali for Operation Barkhane, the France-led counter-terrorism mission that will command Task Force Takuba.

Sweden currently contributes around seven instructors and staff officers to the European Union Training Mission in Mali which has trained more than 14,000 Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) personnel since it was established in February 2013.

Swedish Armed Forces in Mali
Swedish Armed Forces deployed to MINUSMA at Camp Nobel, Timbuktu, August 10, 2016. Image: Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

Task Force Takuba

FAMa has struggled since 2012 to contain an Islamist insurgency despite help from regional and international partners, and the insurgency has since spread into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. More than 4,000 people were reported killed in militant attacks in the three countries last year, according to the U.N., and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the spiraling violence in the Sahel has spread to coastal states of West Africa.

France has for months been trying to build support for the new Task Force Takuba that will train, advise, assist and accompany local forces in their fight against Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in the region.

Takuba will declare initial military capability in the summer and will be fully operational by the autumn, Chief of the General Staff of the French Armed Forces General François Lecointre said on January 22.

France hopes that Takuba will comprise around 500 special forces personnel, Le Monde reported.

A French armed forces spokesperson told The Defense Post in November that “about a dozen” European states had expressed interest in taking part, but concrete commitments to the new mission have been slow to materialize.

Estonia was the first French partner to confirm a deployment to Takuba. In November, a defense ministry spokesperson told The Defense Post that special forces will deploy to Mali in the second half of 2020. Belgium will send three staff officers to the mission, Belga reported in November, and the Czech Republic is planning to send 60 troops to join Takuba, the government said in late January.

The U.S. and Germany have declined to contribute troops, but discussions with Finland and Norway are ongoing, according to French radio station RTL, and Parly said on Sunday that she expected additional announcements shortly.

Estonia troops in Mali
Estonia troops from the Estpla-32 infantry unit deployed to Operation Barkhane patrol in Gao, Mali, September 26, 2019. Image: Kaitsevägi

New French deployment will include Takuba nucleus

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. The Barkhane force focuses activity in insurgent-hit MaliNiger and Burkina Faso, working alongside local troops and other international operations, including MINUSMA and the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S), which comprises troops from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania.

Lecointre told the National Assembly in November that Barkhane was significantly short of personnel, saying that he had “a maximum of 2,000” available for operations out of the 4,500 then deployed, after logistical, support and force protection personnel as well as forces stationed in Chad were discounted.

On February 2, Parly said that the number of French troops deployed to the Sahel would be increased to 5,100. Around 220 of those troops have already deployed to the region, and among the remaining 400 soldiers, a combat group of around 50 special forces personnel will form the nucleus of Takuba, Le Monde reported.

Mali’s Communications Minister Yaya Sangare said on Wednesday that the French reinforcements were expected to arrive in Mali before the end of February.

Barkhane already has an international dimension, with European partners contributing troops and equipment. Estonia is to almost double the size of its force protection contingent this year, Denmark has deployed two Merlin helicopters, and three Chinook helicopters from the United Kingdom currently support the operation.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of the G5 Sahel states injected new urgency into the counter-terrorism fight on January 13, announcing 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.

Mali is to launch Operation Maliko, a new military operation to counter terrorism and assert state authority that will ‘take into account’ cross-border, regional and international cooperation, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta decreed last week. Maliko is split into two theaters of operations, and the East Theater, headquartered in Gao, corresponds with the French-led operation in the tri-border zone.

Last week, the G5 Sahel military chiefs of staff agreed to allow forces from one country to “support another force in another zone,” and to allow the forces from each state to pursue terrorist fighters up to 100 km into neighboring countries.

Chad will soon deploy an additional battalion within the FCG5S in the tri-border zone, Parly said on Sunday.

French and Malian troops patrol Menaka
Paratroops from the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment, part of the French Foreign Legion, patrolling with Malian Armed Forces in Ménaka, Mali. Image: @2REPOfficiel/Twitter

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 then into 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.

Macron has said the Sahel Coalition would prioritize the fight against ISIS in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area because it is the most dangerous.

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