Learning the lessons of France’s Sahel mission

Learning the lessons of France’s Sahel mission

French Sahelwithdrawal symbolized the end of a strategy that placed disproportionate emphasis on military might. (Reuters)
French Sahelwithdrawal symbolized the end of a strategy that placed disproportionate emphasis on military might. (Reuters)
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As the dust settles on France’s decade-long military engagement in the Sahel, with the last French troops withdrawing from Niger last month, a sobering reflection on its presence in the region comes into sharp focus. The withdrawal symbolizes the end of a strategy that placed a disproportionate emphasis on military might, while sidelining the indispensable elements of social and political support. This column delves into the crux of the matter: France’s overreliance on security measures at the expense of fostering development, which ultimately led to the unraveling of its presence in the Sahel.
There is a clear and long-standing axiom in politico-military circles: no military victory is sustainable without the underpinning of social and political support. Yet, France's Sahelian interventions starkly illustrated the failure to heed such a basic principle. An envisioned civil-military coordination, a concept enshrined within strategic manuals, never truly materialized, as France moved to curb an extremist tide across Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, while simultaneously extending a lifeline of development aid. Despite the establishment of the Sahel Alliance in 2017, alongside Germany, the EU and other partners, the result was far from the intended consortium of support.
France’s Sahelian interventions, christened Operation Serval and, later, Operation Barkhane, were launched with two main objectives: to stem the extremist tide across Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, and to extend a lifeline of development aid, thereby constructing a support framework to sustain its presence in the region. However, this dual-pronged plan faltered on the latter ambition, guaranteeing the total collapse of the former. The shift from Serval to Barkhane partly unraveled the disjunction of French policies in the Sahel. What was supposed to be a timely recalibration only widened the chasm between French military objectives and the sociopolitical realities of Sahelian dynamics.
The ramifications of this misalignment are glaring. While France concentrated on quelling insurgency, the regional governments grappled with endemic problems that a military cannot fix. As a result, anti-French sentiment burgeoned, eventually leading to coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, which only further eroded France’s standing and complicated regional dynamics. Amid this quagmire, Sahelian states began to pivot toward Russia, seeking an alternative to the French military model. The arrival of the Wagner Group in territories previously held by French forces is indicative of this trend. This shift underscores a larger geopolitical contest and reflects the local governments’ desperation for different solutions to their woes, both security-related and otherwise.
The pivot toward Russia and the employment of Wagner operatives represents a new model of intervention in the Sahel — one that deviates from reliance on Western alliances to a confederation with more opportunistic players. Therefore, this shift exacerbates existing geopolitical tensions and reflects the desperation of local governments for alternative solutions to their persistent security crises.

Sahelian states began to pivot toward Russia, seeking an alternative to the French military model.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

To be fair, the Sahel Alliance did attempt to provide a formal structure for much-needed civil-military coordination. But even such an ambitious push was unable to remedy the gaps left by a flawed French strategy that neglected a critical supporting pillar: development aid. French development assistance targeting the Sahel states amounted to only 10 percent of its total aid to Africa in 2018. Even more telling, Mali received less than 3 percent. This pattern remained consistent throughout its engagement in the region, a clear indicator of the discrepancy between France’s stated political objectives and the actual allocation of resources.
Furthermore, each French intervention was swept up in a security-first mindset, limiting Paris’ effectiveness and ability to contribute to longer-term stability. France’s heavy-handed security approach was evident through its substantial military deployments. In Niamey alone, the French presence included an airbase and smaller units along the borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. Despite its military prowess, this security-centric strategy was akin to a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. It neglected the underlying issues that fuel instability: poverty, lack of governance, and economic despair.
By prioritizing security over development, France inadvertently bolstered the very foundations of discontent it sought to overcome. As overtures of development support fell short, it fed anti-French sentiment, fueling doubts over the country’s intentions and eventually leading to accusations of neocolonial patterns of dependency.
Resolving the conflicts in the Sahel was always going to be a Herculean task that required a delicate balancing act between military intervention and active socioeconomic support. Admittedly, the complex nature of the involved parties and the divergent interests of international players further complicated the task. Nevertheless, the tale of France’s Sahel policy underlines that any military intervention strategy that does not sufficiently address the essential civil support component is bound to meet substantial hurdles. Lessons from France’s Sahel misadventure clarify the urgency of moving away from militarized strategies toward a more holistic, civil-focused approach encompassing not just security but also development — particularly with an eye on preempting global threats such as climate change and pandemics.
France’s experience presents an invaluable case study that underscores the pressing need for a more balanced and coordinated political and civil approach to military interventions — one where the principle of civil-military coordination is not an afterthought, but an integral part of designing and implementing effective policies based on objective realities on the ground. For France and its European allies, the lesson is clear: Military solutions must be complemented by robust development initiatives and genuine political partnerships. A recalibration of strategy is needed to one that prioritizes the welfare of the Sahelian populations, supports democratic institutions and addresses the root causes of instability.
To conclude, the departure of French forces from Niger was not merely the end of an operation, but a signal for introspection and strategic reorientation. France, along with its international partners, must now reflect on the shortcomings of an overly militarized approach. A sustainable peace in the Sahel hinges on a holistic strategy that balances security concerns with social, political and economic development. Only then can the nations of the Sahel embark on a path toward lasting stability and prosperity.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. X: @HafedAlGhwell
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