AWAGATE FOREST, MALI – For two days, dozens of armored vehicles with 180 elite soldiers from the French Foreign Legion trampled over West Africa’s scrubby savannah to find a suspected hideout for militant Islamists.
Finally, through a thicket of acacia trees, the legionnaires discovered a suspect wearing a turban in flip-flops who was wearing an AK-47 that was about to start a sprint and melt away. The soldiers found only his gun, boots and ammunition holster under a thorny fence and presented the results to their officer.
“A modest result,”
When France sent its forces to Mali, a former French colony, after armed Islamists took control of the northern cities of the West African country, their mission was to last only a few weeks.
That was seven years ago.
Since then, the terrorist threat has spread across a wide area south of the Sahara known as the Sahel, and France’s struggle against terrorism has spread. As a result, more than 10,000 West Africans have died, more than a million fled their homes, and armed forces from West Africa and France suffered many losses.
And yet the struggle is hardly over. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, a powerful armed group with loose ties to the Islamic State, has carried out sophisticated attacks in the border regions of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. In the past four months, militants have raided four large outposts in Mali and Niger and killed 300 soldiers.
France is now stuck in the Sahel, much like the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. They spend years and billions of dollars fighting highly mobile Islamist groups in difficult, unknown territory with no end in sight.
French President Emmanuel Macron threatened an emergency summit with West African presidents in January to withdraw his troops. He later doubled the mission and promised to deploy another 600 soldiers to join the 4,500 already there. He also committed to working more closely with the military in African countries to better prepare them to ward off attacks and relieve the burden on French shoulders.
But the task is enormous. The allies are separated by language, culture and experience.
In a French military camp outside the ancient Malian city of Gao, 15 Malian soldiers were instructed by French airmen to give aircraft precise instructions by radio. The Malians’ mission was to lead a fake fighter pilot to a fake terrorist den – a rust-colored house, just like everyone else in town.
West African security forces have little equipment, training or even basic training like their French counterparts. Most Malian soldiers said they had never seen a compass before and they always misunderstood their instructions. They tested each other on the powdery sand, an empty cigarette packet that marks the north, a plastic cup for the south.
The militants are far from being defeated. One group even managed to kidnap the politician who led Mali’s main opposition party near Timbuktu last week.
The African Union recently announced that it would send 3,000 soldiers to the Sahel, and France was trying to recruit new allies. Estonia and the Czech Republic have already registered to send troops while talks with Sweden, Finland and Norway are continuing.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly flew to Washington in late January to plead for continued support from the Americans.
French military officers interviewed in Mali and Niger on the runway of an air base, in the cockpit of a transport plane and in a drone control room last month said they were concerned about the annual loss of $ 45 million in transport, air refueling, and drones that the US is contributing to the French mission, which costs $ 1 billion annually.
But General Pascal Facon, the commander of the French mission, said in an interview that European and African armies could “easily” conquer the Islamic state in the Greater Sahara. Unlike the Islamic State at its peak in Syria and Iraq, the ISGS has no territory and no long roots in local communities, he said.
“We shouldn’t underestimate them,” said General Facon. “We shouldn’t give them too much importance either.”
French troops first came to Mali at the request of the Malian government. Although they are there to defend Malian civilians, the two groups have very little interaction.
A foot patrol by French soldiers, completely covered with flak jackets, helmets, sunglasses and half balaclavas, bypassed a nomadic family of women and children who packed their hut out of sticks and hand-woven mats and their few belongings – some – or unpacked plastic containers, a saucepan .
Did the family come or go and why? The soldiers couldn’t ask. They didn’t have a common language. And if militants found out that the family had spoken to them, the family could be killed.
When some Malian teenagers asked a foreign legion convoy for cookies, they blocked the convoy’s path and delayed it by half an hour. The boys didn’t get any cookies. In another incident, a legionnaire pointed his gun at some locals who tried to jump on the back of an armored vehicle.
The battle challenged everyone. France’s Defense Minister said last year that the army had killed 600 jihadists since 2015. In February, Niger announced that 120 militants had been killed, and the French military recently announced that another 50 had been killed in central Mali.
But France has lost 44 soldiers since 2013, 13 of them in a helicopter accident last year. Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have lost hundreds in several attacks on military camps.
A fleet of fighter planes, drones, transport planes and helicopters has given the French a significant advantage, and they are often able to disperse armed groups by only flying low and aggressively over them. But even if local armies were able to take power, chasing terrorists from the desert across the dry riverbed into the acacia forest is not enough to bring peace to the region, experts say.
“The military solution is absolutely necessary, but inadequate,” said Lori-Anne Theroux-Benoni, director of the Institute for Security Studies in Dakar and co-author of a latest report on violence in the region. “Everyone is fascinated by violence,” she said, “and therefore doesn’t focus enough on prevention.”
The main reason why the armed groups were so successful was because they took advantage of the deep anger against the state governments, which many in the region viewed as hostile, self-serving, and corrupt. Their military are often accused of nurturing these abuses through serious human rights violations against the population.
Anti-France demonstrations, largely held by residents of the Malian capital Bamako in the past six months, have provoked French anger.
It is unclear when France will think its job is done or will be frustrated and go. Should it follow America’s example and come out?
“Just as French reality TV and pop music were 15 years behind the United States, the fight against terrorism mimicked the fight against terrorism in the United States 15 years ago,” said Hannah Armstrong, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “In the Sahel, the Americans have already recognized that this is a losing battle.”
In most cases, the militants hear the long, loud convoys of the French Foreign Legion from a distance and clean up. French commanders recognize this. They say the idea is to keep the armed groups on the run so that they cannot come to terms with the local population.
The alleged flip-flop terrorist didn’t seem to hear the convoy coming, but when the soldiers were able to maneuver their vehicles into the tangle of trees where they last saw him, he was long gone – maybe he was adapting to the local population.
Locals are usually too scared to give up suspects, knowing that anyone who has helped the military can be executed if the armies move on. There are no police and no courts to protect them.
The legionaries saw a family duck in their hut. A few nomads guarding camels passed by. Could the man who fled be among them? The French troops couldn’t say it.
Eric Schmitt reported from Nouakchott, Mauritania, and Constant Meheut from Paris, France.