France, West Africa step up counterterrorism efforts

Leaders from five West African nations and France agreed Tuesday to step up the fight against Islamic extremists in the Sahel region by deploying a new battalion from Chad, maintaining a strong French military presence and gradually building up a European task force.

The leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania, in a final statement from their two-day summit in N’Djamena, Chad, hailed progress over the past year that they said had made the implementation of a clear military strategy possible.

French President Emmanuel Macron, European officials and the heads of international organizations also attended the summit via videoconference.

Speaking from Paris, Macron said he would maintain the number of French troops operating in the region at their current level at least until summer. The remark is an apparent reversal from previous statements Macron made in which he suggested that he favored a gradual reduction of troop levels.

“I think that precipitating a French withdrawal or willing to massively withdraw soldiers – which is an option I studied – would be a mistake,” he said during a news conference. “This is the result of a discussion I had with each (Sahelian) leader.”

France has about 5,100 troops deployed in the five West African countries, making it the country’s largest military operation abroad.

“We must not release pressure on terrorist groups,” Macron said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Macron said military operations should stay focused on the region bordering Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso – the epicenter of the fight against jihadist groups.

The military will also this year “try to cut off the head” of al-Qaida-linked groups known as JNIM and the Macina Liberation Front, he said.

President Idris Deby of Chad said his country would send 1,200 troops to the tri-border region between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Chad has said in the past that it would deploy soldiers to the region but did not.

The leaders who attended the summit also vowed to further strengthen a regional force known as the G5 Sahel force that was launched in 2017. It is made up of soldiers from Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania who operate in cooperation with French troops.

African and European officials called for long-term international financing of G5 Sahel. Macron said the force needs 40 million euros ($48.5 million) per year to stay operational.

Burkina Faso is one of the hardest-hit countries in the region, with more than 1 million displaced people as a result of the violence. Civilians there civilians have lauded military gains made last year, pointing to how some people have started returning to the villages from which they were chased.

“This was unexpected a year ago,” Armand Joseph Kabore, director of Labo Citoyennetes, a think tank in Burkina Faso told The Associated Press.

Kabore said that while he appreciates international assistance, he thinks it’s time for African countries to find solutions and to be responsible for their own security.

“In order to stop being eternally assisted, we have to grow up. Even a child who is born into the world must at some point be able to fly on his own,” he said.

If France does reduce its troop commitment in the future, the region would have to find a solution to compensate its absence, Kabore noted.

”(The G5 Sahel) force has to be more present, more of a deterrent, and capable of efficiently opposing forces of evil,” he said.

Other Sahel analysts don’t think the region is ready to go it alone.

“The progress of the G5-Sahel is quite slow. We thought that right after the creation of this organization it would achieve concrete objectives, like strengthening the Sahel countries’ armies’ capacity to face terrorism,” Siaka Coulibaly, an analyst with the Center for Public Policy Monitoring by Citizens in Burkina Faso, said. “On this exact point, we realized that the countries aren’t really satisfactory.”

Civil society groups in the Sahel say that the approach should be less military and more inclusive, one that focuses on good governance, development and reducing stigmatization of ethnic groups, said a statement from the Fulani community of the Sahel, a group that has been targeted by security forces for their alleged affiliation with jihadists.

The leaders during the summit also pushed for an increasing role of the Takuba task force, a military group composed of European special forces. Macron said the task force should ultimately number 2,000 troops but didn’t disclose when it would reach that strength.

The task force is currently composed of soldiers from France, the Czech Republic and Estonia and will be augmented by troops from Sweden and Italy in the coming months.

According to Macron, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered summit participants the “first signal of the renewed commitment” of the new U.S. administration to maintain troops and military assets in the region.

French troops have been present the Sahel region since 2013, when they intervened in Mali to expel Islamic extremist rebels from power.

“France is not involved in ethnic or communitarian wars. No. Our presence on site has been requested by the states, it is in support of the sovereignty of these states and we are fighting against one common enemy… Islamist terrorism,” Macron said.

The leaders also agreed that on top of military operations, efforts are needed to restore state mechanisms in the most vulnerable areas to support civilians and boost regional development.