France’s military offensive into Mali initially began in 2013 to support a government incapable of stopping Tuareg rebels and extremist groups with links to Al Qaeda taking over the country’s northern half.
With the help of Europe’s second strongest military power, Malian troops succeeded in removing the factions from major cities, including historic Timbuktu, but the seeds of instability had been sown.
While French officials and the African Union were able to organise peace talks between the Tuaregs and the Malian government, the threat has not gone away.
The extremists continued to spread across porous borders and launched attacks as far as Ghana, Algeria and Cote d’Ivoire.
The fallout from the Libyan Civil War in 2011 was partly blamed for the instability as heavy weapons became easily accessible.
Pan-African militants were able to tap into existing migrant routes to move material with comparative ease.
An Amnesty International report in 2012, not long after an attempted coup, said Mali was facing its worse crisis since gaining independence in 1960.
There were wide accusations of extra-judicial killings, sexual violence and the use of child soldiers as the violence began.
Operation Barkhane was launched as a region-wide offensive by France and the G5 Sahel, a joint force formed in 2014 from the armies of five regional countries – Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.
The G5 mandate was not only military but also political and diplomatic strategies.
The European Council on Foreign Relations says about 4,500 soldiers are spread across the five nations, although the highest concentration is in northern Mali.
France’s largest overseas operation reportedly costs about €600 million a year, shoring up governments in the region.
‘It engages from combat patrols alongside Malian forces and partner militias, to intelligence gathering and training, to local development activities meant to fill the hole left by an absent government,’ the European council said.
While some senior commanders have fled or been killed, terrorist groups in northern Mali, including ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates, have not been eliminated and continue to take advantage of local discontent.
‘So far, the Malian and Burkinabe authorities have been unable to contain the insurgents or tackle the sharp increase in communal violence,’ Flore Berger, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said this year.
‘International stakeholders, the French and the G5 Sahel, have had little success either.
‘Failure to address the roots of the insurgency will harden communal divisions and risks further regional destabilisation.’
The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali, believed to be 13,000 troops, is often attacked and soldiers from the region’s forces have fared far worse than the French.
France’s western allies provide a small degree of military support but not enough, French officials say.
The UK gives some equipment and soldiers, and the US provides intelligence support.
‘Our European friends, if they want to ensure their long-term security against terrorism, must help us and step up now,’ former air force general Jean-Paul Palomeros told RTL radio on Tuesday.
France insists it has no plans to pull out after being forced to concede that the security situation is troubling.
Defence Minister Florence Parly said this month on a visit to the region that things were difficult, while a former defence official warned of a ‘quagmire’.
‘On the ground the facts are plain,’ Bruno Clement Bollee, once a defence co-ordinator at the foreign ministry, told French daily newspaper Le Monde.
‘The rise in strength of the militants is a reality we can no longer deny. It is they who have initiative.