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France Sets New Strategy in Niger

FILE: French soldiers of the 2e Regiment Etranger de Parachutistes (2eREP - 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment ) and Nigerien soldiers prepare for a mission on the French BAP air base, in Niamey, on May 14, 2023.

NIAMEY - Dozens of troops from Niger and France's legendary Foreign Legion board a French C-130 transport plane. They're making a parachute jump to take an location in Niger. The joint operation reflects the new plan President Emmanuel Macron wants to use in West Africa's deeply troubled Sahel.

The cooperation with Niger is part of a strategy which Paris hopes will show the key lesson from Mali: support local forces by providing the equipment and expertise they need, but don't substitute for them.

"In Niger and everywhere in Africa, the idea is now different from what was done in Mali. Today our help starts with what the partner needs," said the commander of the French forces in the Sahel, General Bruno Baratz.

The pullout last year from Mali brought the curtain down on the long-running Barkhane operation against Islamist militants in the francophone ex-colonial region - a hugely problematic deployment that left over 50 French troops dead.

Neighboring Burkina Faso, also led by a junta, this year also pushed out French forces from its territory, a prelude to what the West fears will also be a pivot to Wagner.

It was against this increasingly difficult background that Macron ordered lower-profile operations more specifically tailored to the needs of partner countries.

The new strategy is upheld to the letter in Niger, which has accepted 1,500 French soldiers on its soil to bolster its armies at a time when the Islamic State is once again a threat.

"I believe the French army is trying to use Niger as a laboratory for new relationships" in Sahel, and "be a supporter rather than a leader" said Michael Shurkin, director of global programs at risk management firm 14N Strategies.

"France is convinced it needs to be as discreet as possible," he said.

"France was fighting its own war in parallel to what Malians were doing. Now France is trying to do things differently."

A French military officer, who asked not to be named, said the new strategy still meant a "de-Barkhane-isation" of attitudes in the French armed forces, who grew used to tracking militants in the desert in much more autonomous conditions.

But Niger seems satisfied.

"Today the commanders are from Niger and they master the terrain and the needs. We can only congratulate ourselves. The French bring us the military training, equipment, intelligence and air resources that we lack," Niger's former defense minister Kalla Moutari told AFP.

In Mali, Barkhane notched up undeniable tactical victories against the jihadists.

But the country's political authorities never managed to re-establish control in areas purged of militants. And the Malian army remained fragile, despite years-long efforts to strengthen it.

Cooperation with Niamey, however, is smoother.

"Niger has a particularly effective counter-insurgency strategy," combining population security and the return to the state to disputed areas, Baratz said.