Military results achieved in Mali are undeniable but alone won’t stabilize Sahel - Minister
Sahel – Interview given by Mme Florence Parly, Minister for the Armed Forces, to the daily newspaper Nice Matin (excerpts)
Toulon, 21 January 2021
Q. – Five soldiers recently lost their lives in the Sahel. Are these deaths the final straw for Operation Barkhane, which public opinion seems increasingly opposed to?
THE MINISTER – I’m not in the business of commenting on polls. Many, on the contrary, show that French people support our armed forces. I understand and share the shock felt across the country at the announcement of the deaths of our five soldiers. And I want to pay a glowing tribute to the service men and women engaged in fighting terrorism, sometimes to the point of giving their lives. To come back to Barkhane, let me repeat: this operation won’t go on forever. That doesn’t mean we’re going to pack up and go tomorrow, but our set-up is going to evolve. We’ll adapt our efforts according to the results obtained on the ground, and the commitment of the Sahel armed forces and the enemy.
Q. – Will announcements be made to this effect during the N’Djamena summit in February?
THE MINISTER – These issues will quite obviously be discussed as a matter of priority with our partners during the N’Djamena summit. The summit will come a year after the Pau summit, during which the Sahel’s five countries (Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania) reaffirmed their joint determination to continue the battle against terrorism. So it will be an opportunity for us all to take stock together. I note that in 12 months we’ve got substantial results, particularly in the tri-border area, where the terrorist groups are disorganized. More and more European partners, conscious of the security stakes at play in the Sahel, are joining us to fight in the Takuba force, with all the consequences and risks it entails. They’re even prepared to pay with their lives in this battle against jihadist groups.
Q. – After an eight-year presence in the Sahel, is there sufficiently clear-cut progress on the ground or does Mali risk finding itself in a situation comparable to that of Afghanistan?
THE MINISTER – The military results achieved in Mali are undeniable. But they alone won’t enable the Sahel to be stabilized. The military action is aimed at creating a political space which can provide solutions. As we said at the Pau summit a year ago, the military action and the support we’re providing to the Sahel armed forces is there to ensure the crucial return of the State.
Q. – After strikes on the village of Bounti, the French army was accused of a serious blunder, a version of events you dispute by affirming that the French army is the target of a disinformation campaign.
THE MINISTER – I categorically deny – as I have on several occasions already – the rumour that French strikes resulted in casualties during a marriage ceremony. On 3 January 2021, near the village of Bounti, the Barkhane force indeed carried out strikes with fighter planes following a detailed intelligence operation. These strikes neutralized the targets we were aiming at, namely terrorist fighters. This information war is being waged by many players, sometimes State powers wanting France to leave.
Q. – France is itself accused of resorting to these disinformation campaigns. What’s the situation?
THE MINISTER – We can’t be victims in this information war without doing something. It’s vital that we fight the battle in the information sphere as well, but while strictly adhering to our republican and democratic values. France isn’t spreading disinformation.
RESURGENCE OF DAESH
Q. – You talked about the resurgence of Daesh [so-called ISIS] in Syria and Iraq. We get the impression this is an endless repetitive cycle. Is this war against jihadists winnable?
THE MINISTER – What we’re seeing is that Daesh, which was territorially defeated in 2019 with the fall of Baghouz, is becoming stronger again. Cells are gradually emerging from underground to arm themselves, recruit and once again carry out actions against civilians and local forces. If we lower our guard, Daesh will recover its ability to plan actions in Europe and France, as was the case in 2015. If we don’t continue fighting – and we’ve seen this with the reduced commitment of the US forces –, we create the right conditions to allow Daesh to become stronger again. Incidentally, I want to pay tribute to the Kurdish forces, who have been fully engaged on the front line in this battle against Daesh.
Q. – Since you mention the Americans, what are you hoping for from the new US administration?
THE MINISTER – France and the United States are historical allies, and in this respect let me point out that even during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, operational cooperation between our armed forces continued effectively. Having followed the campaign, we clearly note that Joe Biden’s priority is to repair the damage done by his predecessor, not just within American society but also to the United States’ contribution to the functioning of the great multilateral organizations. In the face of terrorism in the Sahel or the Levant, on matters of security, we’ll be able to reach agreement. We also expect the United States to pick up the dialogue with Iran again, with the objectives of nuclear non-proliferation and the stabilization of the Middle East. And we hope it will also resume dialogue with Russia on arms control, giving a place to those Europeans directly concerned.
CARRIER BATTLE GROUP
Q. – The carrier battle group is due to set sail from Toulon soon to continue the fighting. What date, and for how long?
THE MINISTER – The battle group is indeed scheduled to leave in mid-February for a mission lasting several months. In the Mediterranean first, as part of Operation Chammal to fight Daesh in the Levant, then the Indian Ocean. Whether at sea or in the air, the battle group will carry out intelligence missions. If needed, with the 24 Rafales, it will be able to carry out strikes. No one wants to see Daesh come to life again. We’re therefore determined to continue the fight against Daesh, be it with the battle group or with our Air and Space Force planes based in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Q. – Before it sets sail, are the sailors who, as we recall, were hit by COVID going to be vaccinated?
THE MINISTER – The battle group’s sailors are indeed going to be vaccinated against COVID before they leave Toulon. Everyone understands the reasons for this. If the sailors and fighter pilots are to be safely able to carry out this long, important mission, during which medical evacuation capabilities will be limited, they need to be vaccinated against COVID before leaving. This vaccination campaign, decided on in agreement with the Health Ministry, began today, Thursday 21 January.
Q. – At the beginning of November, you were in Toulon for the transfer of Suffren to the French navy. Will this nuclear attack submarine soon be operational?
THE MINISTER – Suffren is currently undergoing its first scheduled technical stop in Toulon, at purpose-built facilities. Let me be clear that this is work planned a long time ago. Since I visited for its transfer to the navy in November, the new-generation nuclear attack submarine, a real industrial success, has continued its trials in accordance with the planned programme and will be put into active service some time in 2021. (...)./.