Operation Barkhane, France’s Afghanistan in Africa, just got weirder

The French have had thousands of troops deployed to the desert Sahel region of Mali and Chad (and to a lesser extent Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger) since Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda took control of the region in early 2012, going hand-in-hand with a Tuareg separatist uprising which gave the whole thing the aura of a civil war with jihadi undercurrents.

Who wouldn’t want to get involved with that, right?

While Paris has always had a smattering of European allies there (British, Canadians, Danes, and Swedes, mainly) they never contribute anything larger than a company-sized element, leaving the French to carry the fight largely alone. 

With that, France, as French-speaking Africa’s gendarmerie despite their pull back from the Continent in the 1960s following the end of the brutal war in Algeria, have seen lots of successes. For instance, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara was “neutralized by French forces,” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted two weeks ago.

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi was on everyone’s list, and the French zapped him in the Sahel this month, reportedly droning him off his motorbike somewhere in Mali’s northern desert. A “tactical success.”

Meanwhile, France has spilled lots of blood there for those gains.

Army Chief Corporal Maxime Blasco, a veteran commando, killed 24 September, was the 52d Frenchman to die on Operation Barkane since 2013.

So now, the French are slowly leaving Mali.

The plan is to cut the force from 5,000 today to between 2,500 and 3,000 by 2023. Most will be leaving from the northern Mali bases at Kidal, Timbuctu, and Tessalit, which may or may not be consolidated– reports vary. 

However, the Mail government, which has an Etch-A-Sketch quality to it due to a recent coup, followed by a counter-coup with “plans for an election next year,” has denounced the French redeployment (let’s just call it a withdrawal) saying that the for-now regime in Bamako would seek other allies.

From Russia.

The plan by the Mali government is to bring in Wagner Group private military contractors to fill the gap. The Wagners aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty. They have a rough reputation for their work elsewhere in Africa– with allegations of field executions and assorted war crimes in blood diamond areas– and have seen lots of action in Syria, even famously coming up short against American artillery and close-air-support, which the Russians lacked.

In short, things are primed to get really interesting in the region.

And the beat goes on…

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