The new president of Niger on Monday called France’s anti-jihadist force in West Africa a “relative failure” despite years of efforts, and said a partial troop drawdown would have only a limited impact.
The Barkhane force has been operating across five Sahel countries — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger — since intervening to fend off a jihadist advance in Mali in 2013.
Yet the 5,100 soldiers are struggling to support and train local security forces across a desert zone roughly the size of western Europe, even with an air component that includes seven fighter jets, 20 helicopters, and three Reaper drones.
“We would have liked, as part of the cooperation framework with the French army, to have had better results than we have,” President Mohamed Bazoum told France 24 television. “This relative failure, it’s a shared failure, a failure of the entire coalition,” he added.
On March 21, 137 people in nomadic camps were slaughtered in the Tahoua region, on Niger’s western border, by armed men who arrived on motorbikes.
President Emmanuel Macron has said that while he has no plans for an immediate drawdown of troop levels, he said in February that he intended to reduce the deployment in the coming years as he sought more European contributions to the security effort.
“A partial retreat by France, if it kept the air component, will not have a big impact on the operation or on the balance of forces,” Bazoum said. But he added that a drawdown would not be interpreted “as an abandonment by the French.”
“The important thing for us is a certain presence of French air forces which, from my point of view, will be guaranteed no matter the number of soldiers on the ground,” he said.
During a video summit last month with Macron and the leaders of the so-called G5 countries, the French leader urged them to step up their anti-terror fight and work on restoring government control in areas where Islamist fighters have closed schools and driven millions from their homes.