France has announced plans to withdraw approximately 1,500 troops and military resources from Niger by year’s end, ending a nearly 10-year mission aimed at combating jihadist insurgents in the Sahel region.
The decision comes after relations rapidly deteriorated between Paris and Niger’s military junta, which seized power in a coup last July. But it also reflects growing scrutiny over the effectiveness of France’s counterterrorism operations and military footprint across Francophone Africa.
For nearly a decade, France has deployed thousands of soldiers across the Sahel under Operation Barkhane to help regional forces battle Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Yet extremist violence has continued escalating, with thousands killed and millions displaced.
Critics increasingly argue that France’s military-heavy strategy has failed to curb the crisis. Rather than defeat extremists, they say the operations have stoked anti-French sentiment and enabled jihadists to exploit grievances over civilian casualties and human rights abuses.
With little progress towards stability, some question whether French troops are part of the solution anymore or risk becoming part of the problem.
There are also concerns over the opacity of France’s Sahel missions and close relationships with autocratic regimes, as seen in Chad and Mali. The coup in Niger underscored the risks of allying with fragile governments.
While France maintains its forces were effective against jihadists in Niger, the political rift with the new junta complicated sustaining the mission. However, the withdrawal also shows France’s waning influence among former African colonies.
As Paris reassesses its strategy, jihadist groups seem positioned to gain from the security void left by retreating French troops in Niger and elsewhere in the Sahel. New approaches are urgently needed to relieve beleaguered regional militaries and address drivers of extremism like poverty and weak governance.
Rather than prolonged counterterrorism missions, France and international partners should focus on empowering regional governments to achieve peace through inclusive political solutions, transparency and protecting human rights. Military aid must align with these goals.
After nearly a decade of fighting terror in Niger without quelling the crisis, France’s withdrawal offers an opportunity to fundamentally rethink a failing strategy. The risks of chaos left in their wake underscore the need for a new approach centred on African leadership and addressing root causes.