by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.More than three years ago, France launched Operation Barkhane, intended to combat terrorism throughout West Africa. Although the mission was initially launched in response to the threat posed to Mali by a collection of militant Islamist groups – al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Dine, and Al-Mourabitoun – some of the approximately 3,500 French troops participating in Operation Barkhane have also been stationed in Chad, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso. Furthermore, the French deployment to the region has provided support for the development of the Group of Five Sahel (G5S) joint force, which will be comprised of 5,000 soldiers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger and will be capable of pursuing threats across national boundaries, at least among the G5S.
As such, Operation Barkhane has been deservedly lauded by observers for its innovative approach to fighting asymmetric threats. Whereas the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has proved ineffective, particularly because it is limited from carrying the fight to secessionist and extremist forces in the country’s north, Operation Barkhane’s French irregulars have been able to take away much of the initiative and momentum once enjoyed by the terrorist elements menacing the Sahel. The value of this asymmetric response to asymmetric threats cannot be under-stated, though there are certainly other factors at play, such as the role French airpower has played in supporting advanced by conventional West African troops.
However, the secret to Operation Barkhane’s success has less to do with advancements in French counter-terrorism doctrine and more to do with the failures of the region’s various insurgencies. A 2003 RAND study indicates that successful occupations or nation-building exercises have generally required a ratio of 20 soldiers per thousand civilians in the host country. It is difficult to say whether the American-led occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq conform to the conclusions of this study or if revisiting the issue of successfully occupying a country, particularly as instability persists in both Afghanistan and Iraq, would result in the conclusion that a lower ratio would be needed. Regardless, the terrorist elements in the Sahel have failed to gather the critical mass of fighters and resources necessary to establish an “Islamic Caliphate” in the region.
According to the US State Department, AQIM had not more than 1,000 members at its height, most of whom were located in Algeria. Meanwhile, Ansar al-Dine had approximately 300 fighters in northern Mali prior to the French intervention. Estimates as to the size of Al-Mourabitoun’s fighting force are vague, but French sources have the group at no more than 100 members concentrated on the Niger-Mali border. On 2 March 2017, the three groups committed to band together as “Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin“, more colloquially known as Nusrat al-Islam, and was recognized by al-Qaeda as its regional affiliate a little over two weeks later. Despite this, these Islamist and secessionist forces lack the resources necessary to mount a serious challenge to the sovereignty of any of the G5S countries.
If even the most generous estimates of Nusrat al-Islam’s resources are to be taken at face value, the organization has no more than 4,000 members. The combined population of the G5S is just over 75.6 million people, and so Nusrat al-Islam would require a force of more than 1.5 million well-trained and well-supplied fighters to successfully occupy and govern the whole region, based on the findings of the 2003 RAND study. If the Islamist coalition were to lower its sights to simply occupying Mali, a force of 360,000 fighters would still be needed to keep the country of 18.0 million people in check. Even holding the northern Malian territory of Timbuktu against a determined insurgency or a foreign intervention would be beyond Nusrat al-Islam’s resources: such a task would require almost 14,000 fighters.
In a very real sense, Operation Barkhane succeeds because it does not seek to project power throughout the Sahel; it merely sets out to deny militant Islamist organizations from doing so. With so few fighters to draw upon, and with its resources spread across thousands of kilometres of desert, it is unlikely Nusrat al-Islam or any of its constituent organizations will ever be able to seriously challenge a G5S country for sovereignty. This seems to have been implicitly recognized by Nusrat al-Islam’s leadership, as much of the recent activities conducted by the organization have been reverted to isolated attacks, mainly intended to terrorize civilian populations or challenge the legitimacy of UN forces, rather than mounting any assault intended to seize territory or resources. For example, in June 2017, Nusrat al-Islam launched a series of mortar shells at a UN camp near Kidal, Mali that killed three peacekeepers while several gunmen attacked a resort complex outside the Malian capital of Bamako, reportedly killing three civilians and two Malian soldiers. These attacks, while tragic, represent an entirely different scale of operations to the rebellion that drove government forces out of northern Mali in January 2012.
This may also go some way toward explaining the failure of other asymmetric security threats to mount a lasting challenge to state sovereignty in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, the militant Islamist group Boko Haram has been largely dismantled through a coordinated military response from Nigeria and other regional partners, such as Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Recent estimates suggest Boko Haram has somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters within its ranks, whereas it was once claimed by Amnesty International that the group had more than 15,000 fighters. With much of its activities concentrated on Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram would have needed a force of more than 118,000 soldiers to bring the region fully under its control.
As such, elements like Nusrat al-Islam or Boko Haram must be seen less as potential challengers to state sovereignty, capable of supplanting or hijacking state institutions, and more so as particularly violent gangs. Though the stated goal of Nusrat al-Islam is to establish an “Islamic Caliphate” over millions of people and a vast swathe of territory, the resources available to such elements allow them only to sow chaos and loot communities in the near to medium-term. Beyond the act of pillaging, there is little that these organizations can do in the face of determined opposition from state institutions, like the G5S joint strike force or the Nigerian military.
Some militaries, such as the Canadian Armed Forces, have begun to tinker with the concept of “adaptive dispersed operations” (ADO), and it could be argued that Operation Barkhane is the truest expression of this concept on the modern battlefield. Under such an operational concept, a force is structured in such a way that it can be dispersed through an increased number of basic manoeuvre elements – in the case of the Canadian Armed Forces, four-soldier teams – that can be consolidated in the face or a major threat or re-deployed rapidly via light vehicles or tactical aircraft. Such an operational concept may change the arithmetic of successful occupations.