Two Critical Views of French Military Interventions in Africa

I want to highlight two recent critical analyses of French military interventions in Africa and globally, with special relevance to the Sahel.

The first piece comes from the historian Nathaniel Powell, writing in The Conversation. Discussing Chad (the subject of his forthcoming book), Powell writes:

If [French Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission Operation] Barkhane’s aim is to counter the jihadist threat in the Sahel, why did its forces intervene [in February 2019] to protect a leader from a domestic political rebellion?

The main reason boils down to France’s principal foreign policy priority in Africa since 1960: maintaining stable African political orders broadly favourable to French interests. These interests are diverse and change over time. They include the prestige associated with influence and power projection in another continent, as well as the maintenance of a constellation of states supportive of French diplomacy. The promotion of French language and culture, business interests and investment opportunities are also important, as well as concerns over immigration, and more recently, the “war against terrorism”.

Later in the piece, Powell address the wider logic of Barkhane:

Local observers and academic researchers have emphasised the importance of state violence and local grievances in generating armed resistance to regional governments and civil war in the region. But French policy continues to focus on the cross-border jihadist threat. This has meant more French investment in training, equipping, accompanying, and sharing intelligence with local security forces. It has also meant an increased reliance on states such as Chad whose armed forces are some of the worst purveyors of violence in the region.

I wish Powell had gone further in spelling out his thinking here – what is the alternative to the status quo? This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Frankly, I’d like to see someone make a full-throated case for Barkhane’s withdrawal from the Sahel, so that the merits and drawbacks of that argument could be properly debated. Or perhaps there would be a way to fundamentally revise some of the assumptions on which French policy is based – but would either leaving the Sahel or rethinking Barkhane mean letting certain governments, including Chad’s, fall? Very tough questions.

The second piece is a report (.pdf) by Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. It is provocatively titled “Le Silence des Agneaux: France’s War Against ‘Jihadist Groups’ and Associated Legal Rationale.” Here is one excerpt (p. 19):

If the enemy encompasses any jihadist group that might spring up over the years, the military response does not present geographical and temporal limits. In the absence of distinction between the different non-state armed groups being fought, the fight against jihadist terrorism is not to be held only in the Middle East and in the Sahel but also, it seems, anywhere it might spread in the future. This goes beyond the US “Al-Qaeda and associated forces” framework established by the Congress 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

If this indeed turns out to be the official French position, the French operational logic would imply the corresponding legal interpretations: (i) an armed conflict can take place transnationally, even in non-neighbouring countries as it follows its participants wherever they are; (ii) conflicts end only when there is no reasonable risk of resumption of hostilities; (iii) the category of “organized armed groups” can include several affiliated forces.

Tellingly, phrases such as “how states…exploit legal uncertainties” recur several times throughout the report.

The entire conclusion and recommendations section is worth a close read. Here is one excerpt:

While crafting a public legal rationale for its counter-terrorism efforts, France should be careful not to exploit legal uncertainties and grey areas if they want to preserve the constraining function of international legal norms and appear as a guarantor of the rule of law on the international stage. France should keep in mind that distinguishing between jihadist groups ensures a type of military engagement that releases the pressures put on legal frameworks and thus preserves the restraining function of norms of [International Humanitarian Law]. The present paper also encourages France to draw spatial distinctions delineating its different conflicts in the counter-terrorism context to avoid the characterisation of any action (against individual members of terrorist groups) as part of what would otherwise appear as a global armed conflict against jihadist groups. It should be emphasised that taking into consideration jihadists groups’ specificities ensures the curtailment of violence: each jihadist group fought will be the object of an “organized armed group” test and conflict characterization, and not be the object of an automatic classification of armed conflict (instead, if the test requirements are not met, human rights law will apply). It also ensures that counter-terrorism efforts be deployed against material threats and will not extensively seek annihilation of anybody who potentially carries hostile intent. Finally, it is a guarantee of refined military strategy that tackles threats with various intensities or means.

The part about distinguishing between jihadist groups also recalls a wider point that International Crisis Group (.pdf, p. iii) made a while back – “disaggregate not conflate” is a wise approach not just in the legal arena but in the political and analytical domains as well.

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