“PARIS — This is a war that escapes most radar screens. The French, whose troops have been fighting in the Sahel for seven years, ask few questions about their involvement. They should. In this crucible where Islamist insurgency, ancient local conflicts, fragile states, European hesitations and a shifting American strategy make an explosive mix, it is a war they may well be losing — or, in the best case, a war they may never win.
That is the somber warning that the chief of staff of the French armed forces, Gen. François Lecointre, delivered on Nov. 27, a day after his troops suffered 13 casualties in a helicopter crash in Mali during combat operations. “We will never achieve final victory,” he told the public radio station France Inter. “Avoiding the worst must provide sufficient satisfaction for a soldier. Today, thanks to our constant action, we are ensuring that the worst is avoided.”
Welcome to the unforgiving, thankless fight against jihadis in the Sahel, an African region south of the Sahara as large as Europe, where 4,500 French troops were deployed in January 2013 to prevent the capital of Mali, Bamako, from falling to Al Qaeda. It is now the epicenter of the world’s fastest-growing Islamist-led insurgency. Two weeks ago, the French government decided to send 600 extra troops to the Sahel. Hardly a surge, but a clear sign that “avoiding the worst” is proving more and more difficult.
Bamako was saved, but since then Islamist groups linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have spread to neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso. After killing more than 4,000 people last year and displacing more than a million, these groups are now threatening four coastal West African countries south of Burkina Faso, a state that, as the International Crisis Group warned recently, may provide “a perfect launching pad” for operations in Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast.”