This is a huge field of operations as large as Europe, but almost entirely desert. “Armed terrorist groups” that travel do not know national boundaries with a line drawn by former colonial administrations in the middle of… nothing.
The French army, which is at the forefront in the war against the jihadists in the Sahel, decided to abstract these boundaries. To this end, the Ministry of Defense in depth reorganized its military presence in Africa.
Everything starts with an analysis of the threat after defeating – but not entirely removing – terrorist organizations in northern Mali in the first half of 2013, the French army and intelligence services, not surprisingly, found that these were, in part, scattered in neighboring states.
For the French military, three states in the region now form a single theater Mali, Niger and Chad.Their three governments involved in the fight against terrorism and cooperate with France.
In the region, France will have four main bases: N’Djamena (Chad), Niamey (Niger), Gao (Mali) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso). At N’Djamena: combat aircraft Rafale and Mirage 2000, supported by tankers and ground forces – and the staff who will control operations in the Sahel. In Niamey, intelligence assets, including two new Reaper drones purchased in the United States and will be operational in the coming days. These monitoring devices controlled from the ground in Niamey are collocated with those of the U.S. Air Force. This base can also accommodate combat aircraft and Atlantique 2 maritime patrol, used both above the desert and the ocean. In Gao, land forces, with a large helicopter detachment. Finally, more discreetly, in Ouagadougou, the group of special forces Sabre operates throughout the area from the rear base.
From these four main bases, the French army will add support points further north, that is to say, closer to possible interception areas of terrorist groups. Two of them were chosen: Tessalit, in the far north of Mali, and Faya-Largeau in northern Chad. Another is still being sought in the north-eastern Niger, knowing that special forces are already present in the Arlit mining (northwest) area. These support points must have an airstrip for delivering light vehicle or from where helicopters could operate. In total, this operation in the Sahel has 3,000 French soldiers permanently assigned with air assets totaling nearly thirty aircraft (fighter, transport, helicopters, drones, etc).
The whole of this new operation, which has not yet received a generic name, will be supported by three rear bases in Africa: Dakar (Senegal), Abidjan (Ivory Coast) and Libreville (Gabon).
In total, about 6,000 French soldiers who remain active in Africa, permanently, half are in the Sahel. That’s a lot. More so than any other Western country. The idea to withdraw from the continent, caressed in the drafting of the previous White Paper of Defence (2008), fizzled. France remains more than ever, a permanent African military power.
The United States generally supports this choice. Washington already provides military support and intelligence to the French. The United States wants to disengage where they can and therefore are happy to let the French support the fight against terrorism in the Sahel area. European countries are delighted to see Paris work in its former colonies and they are even willing to give an occasional helping hand.
Seeing 3000 French troops permanently deployed in the south of Algeria may not amuse everyone in Algeria, where relations with the former colonial power remain passionate. On paper, Algiers and Paris fight the same jihadist groups, but the ground realities and sensitivities of each other does not make for a close and trusting cooperation. Algeria could therefore remain the blind spot of the “regionalization of the Sahel”, implemented by France.