The head of a five-nation force in the Sahel has warned against any early move by France to scale back its anti-jihadist mission in the troubled region.
General Oumarou Namata Gazama, a Nigerien who commands the so-called G5 Sahel force, said the recent arrival of European special forces troops was not yet enough to compensate for a reduction in France’s Barkhane mission.
“At the moment, the contribution of Takuba (the special forces unit) is certainly positive, but Barkhane is a close partner of the joint force — Barkhane helps us to offset the gaps in our national forces,” he said in an interview broadcast Thursday by Radio France Internationale (RFI).
“For us, as a joint force, it would be premature to consider (a reduction in Barkhane) and risky for the G5 Sahel.”
The G5 Sahel force pools soldiers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, with the objective of rolling back an eight-year-old jihadist insurgency in the region.
But the force badly lacks equipment and training and three years after it was established remains short of its goal of 5,000 troops. In the field, it relies heavily on French airpower, communications and surveillance.
In France, meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron is under pressure to scale back the Barkhane mission, which was beefed up earlier this year to combat a surge in jihadist attacks.
It currently has 5,100 troops after the reinforcement of 600.
Macron said late last month that he would “take decisions in the coming months” about Barkhane.
France, eager for help in its drive against jihadism in the Sahel, has been a major supporter of the G5 Sahel and of the Tabuka force — a unit that pools special forces from European allies.
Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Sweden all made a political commitment to send special forces to Mali in March. French special forces will also participate.
But Takuba is still at a fledgling stage, and it is not yet clear when the various countries will deploy their troops — with many countries requiring prior parliamentary approval.
France, the former colonial power in the Sahel, has lost 45 troops since it intervened in northern Mali in 2013 after the region was overrun by jihadists and local Tuareg rebels.
The jihadists were routed but later regrouped. Over the years, their campaign has advanced into the ethnically volatile centre of Mali and into Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.