"France and the United States are less and less aligned"

A US special forces soldier trains Nigerien soldiers in Diffa in March 2017.
A US special forces soldier trains Nigerien soldiers in Diffa in March 2017. ZAYID BALLESTEROS / AFP

French Defense Minister Florence Parly announced Sunday (February 2) that 600 more soldiers will be sent to the Sahel, bringing the French operation "Barkhane" to 5,100 soldiers. But in Washington, President Donald Trump has asked the Pentagon to redeploy its resources around the world to focus on competition between powers, facing China and Russia. Africom, the American command for Africa, is therefore studying a reduction in its forces devoted to counter-terrorism on the continent; decisions are expected within two weeks. Paris has made no secret of the fact that a withdrawal of its ally would put its anti-jihadist operations in the Sahel in great difficulty: those, conventional, of "Barkhane", but especially those of its special forces in their mission "Saber".

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However, the two countries are deploying two different strategic visions in Africa. And despite a shared priority – the fight against Islamist terrorism – their forces are working more side by side than in a coordinated manner in the Sahel. When the Americans lost four soldiers in Tongo Tongo, in Niger, in October 2017, the operation carried out with Nigerien forces was not known to the French and revealed to American public opinion the very discreet presence of its troops In the region. Elie Tenenbaum, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), where he coordinates the Defense Research Laboratory, sheds light on this relationship.

Are France and the United States aligned in their fight against terrorism in Africa?

The two countries are less and less aligned. A certain alignment took place at the end of Barack Obama's mandate, between 2013 and 2015, when France assumed its responsibilities in the Sahel by launching operations "Serval" then "Barkhane". Washington, which never wanted to get involved on the continent, was in a logic of "Leadership from behind" and aligned well with this French posture. When Daesh arrived and intervention in the Middle East was launched, a sort of tacit agreement was concluded between Paris and Washington: France made the main effort with the support of the United States in the Sahel, and the United States produces the main effort with the support of the French in the Middle East. The idea was that everyone helps each other. This give-and-take is one of the major reasons why France joined the coalition in Iraq in 2014.

"The question asked by the White House is:" Why would we be in Africa and no longer in Iraq? ""

Since Donald Trump, there has been impatience on the American side towards military engagements and counterterrorism in general, with a desire to disengage in the Middle East. The give-and-take is imbalanced, with the question asked by the White House: "Why would we be in Africa and no longer in Iraq?" "

Beyond that, do the United States share with France a strategic vision of Africa?

They have always had a very external vision of Africa as a battlefield. This was the case during the Cold War. And that was true between 2001 and 2017 in the war on terror. In this context, the United States has often had a distorting prism. Money poured in Africa, in the east as in the west, was to be directed against terrorism. All defense cooperation too. Africans have understood this, who have not hesitated to wave the red rag of jihadism to secure funding. Hence the development of special forces and drone programs. Djibouti's installations were directed from the start, in 2002, against terrorism, towards Yemen and then Somalia. Even Usaid’s development work has been geared towards "combating violent extremism".

"Since independence, the Americans have only very rarely taken an interest in Africa for its own sake. "

It is also clear that there was disillusionment during Obama’s second term in office over the concern over "competition from the big powers." The arrival of China in Djibouti only confirmed this idea. And Washington has switched to another distorting vision, that of strategic competition. The only thing that justifies the continuation of American aid in Africa is the Chinese and Russian presence. Since independence, the Americans have only very rarely taken an interest in Africa for its own sake.

Read also The United States asks the Europeans to help France militarily in the Sahel

Does Washington not adhere to the vision of a risk for Europe posed by a destabilization of the Sahel?

No, this threat does not figure at all in their analysis. Nor the migration risk, sometimes put forward to attract Europeans in "Barkhane". Thus, the "risks of weakness" posed by failed states and highlighted in the latest French defense white paper do not exist for them. In 2017, after Tongo Tongo's ambush against US special forces in Niger, the cost of these contingency operations suddenly appeared to be too high. France is also worried about the presence of China in Djibouti, that of Russia in the Central African Republic or Mali, but Paris has broader reading grids. The two visions remain completely different.

How did France's dependence on American military resources in the Sahel come about?

French dependencies are structural, they correspond to the army's capability gaps in terms of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (SRI, 50% supplied by the Americans), strategic transport and in-flight refueling (40% American). On the SRI is added a qualitative dimension, with the capacity of electromagnetic intelligence and the means to intercept the cellular communications provided by the Americans. The Pentagon estimates at $ 45 million a year (around 40 million euros) Africom’s support to "Barkhane". These are the sums that are being studied for possible cuts. But Washington is also providing $ 300 million to the UN mission in Mali (the Minusma) and 100 million in bilateral form to the G5 Sahel countries.

"It is gratifying for the French army to see that the United States perceives it as a trusted partner in the Sahel. "

"Barkhane" would not collapse if the United States withdrew its means, but the fighter planes and intelligence operations against very mobile jihadist targets ("Time sensitive target") or mobility within the theater would be reduced. The operational tempo would change. Interceptors are expected to arrive on French Reaper drones in late 2020.

For a long time, we could say in Paris that if the United States provided, we could put the money elsewhere. It is also gratifying for the French army to see that the United States perceives it as a trusted partner in the Sahel, this allows us to speak as equals.

Read also Autopsy of a stagnation of France in the Sahel

Can Europeans compensate?

Put end to end, European aid could compensate for American means, but not on SRI. The Spanish, for example, help a lot, providing almost 40% of French strategic transport; In Gabon, our mobility depends largely on a Spanish Casa plane. But making Operation "Barkhane" a showcase for France’s European defense policy has its limits. The special forces coalition “Takuba” appears to be a good tool for European policy more than for “Barkhane”. In addition, the enormous efforts made by Paris to bring these partners can confuse Africans in the face of a very Eurocentric French communication.

Africom is arguing for continued aid to the French, or at least for an orderly withdrawal with a takeover by the Europeans, but can this American command make its arguments in Washington?

Africom remains a somewhat puny child of the command for Europe (Eucom) who has never been fully empowered. It is concentrated on Djibouti, which has 4,000 of the 6,000 American soldiers on the continent and will not lose its weight due to the uncertainties about the Chinese rise. The United States has little investment in French-speaking Africa, with the exception of a few countries, notably Niger. The voice of Africom’s chief will only be heard if it is relayed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper or other prominent figures. Agadez's new American drone base (in Niger) is in the balance and, for the Pentagon, it is better to cut resources in the west than in the east. But the decision has not yet been made, the evaluation process is underway.


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