Sahel: "We must clear up misunderstandings and remobilize" - Minister

Sahel – In the Sahel, “we must clear up misunderstandings and remobilize” – Interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to the daily newspaper Le Monde

Paris, 11 December 2019

Q. – Emmanuel Macron has invited the Sahel’s heads of state to Pau. What’s his goal?

THE MINISTER – It isn’t unjustified that after tragic events, such as the deaths of our 13 soldiers, there’s a need to discuss and clarify things with the parties concerned, at a time when the Barkhane force is engaged in fierce fighting against the radical groups in the region. We also sounded out our interlocutors beforehand about their future availability. We must clear up misunderstandings and remobilize together in three areas.

The first is political. Are we in clear agreement about continuing together this fight against the jihadists? We’ve got to repeat this and the authorities concerned have got to repeat this to their public. Secondly, it’s important that everyone’s intended commitments are highlighted – for example, for Mali, implementing the Algiers agreement (signed in 2015, providing for ex-rebels to be integrated into the defence forces and greater regional autonomy). Their goals must be reaffirmed and the agenda clarified.

Finally, there’s the military remobilization. What appraisal can we make of the (G5 Sahel) Joint Force’s action? How can better coordination between the various players be envisaged? We’ve got to put all this on the table and come out of the meeting with clarified areas for action. This also concerns the European Union, which, on those three points, has to step up its action.

Q. – Is a short-term withdrawal conceivable?

THE MINISTER – The President said that if those three conditions aren’t met he’ll act accordingly. I hope all the conditions for the remobilization are met. Otherwise we’ll have to look again at our postures, while bearing in mind the fact that this concerns our security…

Q. – The threat is spreading, the action of the French forces is disputed, no terrorist action targeting Europe has been launched from the Sahel…

THE MINISTER – Nor can we say it [the French forces’ action] isn’t working. You’ve got to remember that since the beginning of 2013, the area’s politico-military situation has changed. At the start, there was a joint operation by three jihadist groups which wanted to make Mali a haven. It failed because of France’s intervention. Since then, we’ve witnessed significant changes. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Islam and Muslims’ Support Group (IMSG) are engaged in terrorist fighting to destabilize, not to gain territorial control. It’s a tool with quasi-insurgency aspects, with an enlargement of the area of action.

These groups are fuelling ethnic hatred, in particular by exploiting conflicts between groups, as with the Fulani. This new scenario requires full mobilization. The purpose of Barkhane and its partners being there is to eliminate the most violent terrorists and ensure that the Sahel countries are capable of ensuring their own security. To that end, a united idea of joint action is needed.

The Barkhane force has had a lot of success, but the battle will be very long. The challenge is considerable. It’s about our security. Our common border as French people and Europeans is the Sahel. The leaders of the terrorist groupings are mostly neither Malians nor Burkinabés. They’re Algerians or Moroccans who take their orders from elsewhere, particularly from the al-Qaeda leadership.

Q. – How can the cycle of insurrection be broken?

THE MINISTER – States must give themselves the means to restore their presence everywhere, particularly in northern and eastern Burkina Faso and a whole part of Mali. The fact that the joint force is being put in place isn’t insignificant. It’s made up of six battalions with a unified command, and they must enable the authorities to deploy a joint force over such a large area. That’s significant and unprecedented.

Q. – But what are the roots of anti-French feeling?

THE MINISTER – I note it with sadness and a little indignation, given the strength of our commitment, our 41 dead, and the fact that it was done at the request of the political authorities in the Sahel. I don’t want to overestimate that feeling, either. It’s widely shared on social media, through fake news, which must be combated, but in a situation of crisis and insecurity people seek a scapegoat.

Some of the anti-French resentment is linked to the fact that people don’t feel sufficiently protected. So things must be very clear regarding our presence. We have no interests in the region except defending the law and our own security. If that doesn’t involve agreements and a clarification of the commitments, we’ll have to ask ourselves questions and rethink our military stance.

Q. – Governments regularly declare that funding promises for the G5 Sahel force aren’t being kept…

THE MINISTER – I challenge that. France and the European Union are delivering. We’ve released 75% of our financial pledges.

Q. – Isn’t Operation Barkhane undersized, and what’s become of European mobilization?

THE MINISTER – In proportion to its mission, no. It will be even less so when the Takuba force (due to bring together European special forces) is put in place to intervene on the ground and support the G5 Sahel units… Europe is already taking action, even though it will have to take more. In the EU training mission in Mali (EUTM), everyone is present. It’s an important tool, which I put on the table even before Operation Serval.

It’s trained 10,000 Malian soldiers. It comprises nearly 700 European personnel, 12 of them French. In the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the Germans have a significant presence. The Dutch have had one. For Barkhane, the British, Estonians and Danes are with us in the combat force. The Takuba concept seems to bring everyone together, and I think we’ll be capable of developing this force quite quickly. The Czechs confirmed it to me on Friday, for example. Having said that, we’ll have to do more at European level./.

Published on 19/12/2019

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