Operation Barkhane is recognition that West African security requires regional thinking. It is as much a reorganisation of forces and command structures, as it is the formalisation of this regional approach. That formalisation is notable. It signals France’s commitment to the region, as opposed to specific countries. Moreover, is serves as a template or anchor-point for other regional cooperation initiatives.

Operation Barkhane overview

In July 2014, France introduced Operation Barkhane, dramatically increasing the geographic scope of French military efforts in the region. Troops deployed to Mali as part of Operation Serval are now included in Barkhane’s overall force. More than a mere reshuffling of names and units however, Barkhane seeks to bolster cross-border and region-wide securitisation efforts. In effect, it is a shift away from bilateral state-to-state defence, and toward a multilateral state-to-region strategy.

The emphasis on counter-terrorism, and on a regional security approach, reflects the gradual evolution of French military doctrine in Africa

The emphasis on counter-terrorism, and on a regional security approach, reflects the gradual evolution of French military doctrine in Africa. Under Nicolas Sarkozy, current French President Francois Hollande’s predecessor, a defence review concluded that France should concentrate less on bilateral defence ties to and more on a regional approach. It was suggested then that priority should be given toward securing what was described as an ‘arc of instability’ that stretches from North Africa to portions of West Africa and then eastwards to the Horn. The deployment of Operation Barkhane is a continuance of that region-wide thinking.

Force composition

General Jean-Pierre Palasset will assume command of Barkhane on 1 August 2014. Palasset commanded French operations in Ivory Coast and Afghanistan, and will now oversee 3,000 military personnel from his new headquarters in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena. French forces have been based in Chad since 1986 to help the government fight rebels in the north, who at the time were backed by Libya (Opération Épervier).

More than a mere reshuffling of names and units however, Barkhane seeks to bolster cross-border and region-wide securitisation efforts.

Barkhane’s air support will also be based in N’Djamena. Palasset will also have personnel positioned variously at: a regional base in the northern Malian city of Gao; a special forces base in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou; and an intelligence base in Niger’s capital, Niamey. In all, armed forces from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger will participate alongside French troops in the operation.

At its core, Barkhane is intended to focus on cross-border security and to combating the threat of terrorism emerging from Islamist militants. By shifting toward a regional focus, and away from bi-lateral relationships, Palasset will gain valuable distance from internal politics within each of the partner states. This distance means flexibility, and further enhances Barkhane’squick deployment capabilities.

Palasset’s force is set to be provisioned as follows:

  • 20 helicopters (assumedly a mix of Gazelle light attack helicopters, and transport Puma or and Cougar transport helicopters). It is unclear if Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopters will be included in the mission force structure.
  • 200 armoured vehicles (a mix of Véhicule de l’Avant Blindé (VABs), Véhicule Blindé de Combat d’Infanterie (VBCIs), Engin de Reconnaissance à Canon de 90 mm (ERC 90s Sagaie’s);
  • ten dedicated transport/reconnaissance aircraft,
  • six fighter planes (Rafaele Mirage 2000’s)
  • three drones (Harfangs).

Recognising the threat posed by Sahel insecurity

Greater regional cooperation, in the form of improved border security, joint military operations and the sharing of intelligence between the respective governments, has been slowly but steadily improving since the 2012/2013 Mali crisis. Overblown or not, the spectre of an arc of instability stretching along the Sahel from the west to the east coast of the continent has provided substantial impetus for the improvement of such multilateral security initiatives. Similarly, international actors have recognised the regional and international threat posed by the rise of Islamist militancy in such a fragile and volatile area.

The US has long recognised the Sahel as an area of potential insecurity, through the formation of the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI) which falls under the auspices of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM). Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal are all currently partner nations to the TSCTI, which is a cooperation and training facilitation programme intended to help prevent the growth of terrorist organizations in the partner countries.Similarly, the European Union (EU) has recognised this threat and responded by instigating outreach programmes to offer training to regional actors, such as the European Union Training Mission to Mali (EUTM).

Previously the colonial authority over much of West Africa, French interest in the region stems from more than current economic investments, and involves a social link toFrancophone Africa: its former colonies.Additionally, France has also long held fears that radicalism in West Africa might pose a threat through the substantial West African diaspora that calls France home today. Members of that populace could themselves be recruited, radicalised, and trained by militants before returning to France. Moreover, French security forces fear that the diaspora itself could serve as a camouflage for infiltrators seeking to strike at France. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has repeatedly issued calls for attacks against France. Recent French security-related efforts in the region show a growing acknowledgement of the regional scope of the threat.

“When the Sahel is threatened, Europe and France are threatened,”

“When the Sahel is threatened, Europe and France are threatened,” Hollande told French soldiers in Chad during a three day visit to West Africa in late July. While also pushing French trade, the president used the visit through Ivory Coast, Niger, and Chad to solidify support amongst these countries for Operation Barkhane. “There still is a major risk that jihadists develop in the area that runs from the Horn of Africa to Guinea-Bissau” says French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “The aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffics to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves, which would lead to serious consequences for our security.”

Operation Barkhane becomes operational is a few days – and could see a major shift in counter-terrorism and border security efforts in the region. While French military power will form the backbone of such efforts, Barkhane could provide the template needed for desperately needed cooperation amongst Sahel states to provide better joint security.