Around the 5th of February, French Mirage 2000s carried out several airstrikes to stop a caravan of “rebels” on their approach to the capital of Chad, N’Djamena. The interdiction came after the Chadian government requested support from France in the neutralization of Union of Resistance Forces (URF).
The URF convoy ostensibly left southern Libya—a fact disputed by security analysts—with the goal of “destabilizing the country,” according to French military officials. The convoy then refused to return after warnings and strikes from Chadian military forces on the 1st and 2nd of February, or even after the French Air Force strikes on the 3rd.
The General Staff of the Chadian Armed Forces reported the following:
- More than 40 off-road vehicles were destroyed
- 18 vehicles were recovered of which 16 were equipped with heavy weapons
- Hundreds of small arms were seized, as well as a large number of munitions in different calibers
- More 250 terrorists were captured, of which four were considered key leaders
- Several compromising documents were seized
- They are continuing to pursue and capture any escaped terrorists
Youssouf Hamid, the spokesman for the URF, said the French intervention was an example of France’s “unconditional support for Déby (Idriss Déby, president of Chad)” and denied the strike’s impact on URF forces. “Sure, there was some material damage,” he said, “but this fight is not over.”
Support from French forces in Chad, and more widely in former Francophone countries globally, should come as no surprise. Since its independence, Chad has undergone more French military interventions than any other former French colony. However, reasons for French military involvement and their tactics have changed considerably as of late.
During the ’60s and ’70s, France was involved in multiple operations against the Chad National Liberation Front (FROLINAT). To halt Gaddafi’s expansion in Africa the French government launched Òperation Épervier (Sparrow Hawk). Épervier was also intended to prop up Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, who, in 2017, was convicted of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. Habré was also a staunch ally to the French and U.S. during their fight against the Libyan regime.
French strategy has not changed in almost 60 years. It continues to prop up the Chadian leadership with its latest strike. Interestingly, autocrat Idris Déby came to power after he led a coup d’état against Habré in 1990, which prompted the French to switch sides. Déby, for his part, has faced some critical rebellions—in April 2006 and February 2018. Rebels even managed to hit as far as the capital of N’Djamena.
This year, though, France has escalated its support for the Chadian government. Before, it provided intelligence support to the Chadian military and police, a “show of force” presence with its fighter jets, munitions and supplies from Libya in 2008, and even security to the country’s critical infrastructure. All these actions were intended to offer the Chadian military a force multiplier in its fight against rebel forces. But with the latest attack, the French government has proven it is willing not only to support the Chadian government, but also to strike on behalf of it.
Operation Barkhane was launched in August of 2014, after Operation Epervier ended. It ran through all those years even after the end of the Cold War and the Chad-Libya conflict. It also replaced Operation Serval in Mali and now runs in five Sahelian countries with around 4,500 personnel. Barkhane is France’s largest foreign military deployment and receives drone and logistical support from the U.S.
The Barkhane mission statement is to assist in the War on Terror in the Sahara and Sahel regions. However, the latest strike was not made against terrorists, but against rebels who are looking to overthrow the government of Chad. While the Déby government has ruled with an iron fist for years, it is not as if the URF provides a drastically different alternative. The URF is led by Timan Erdimi—the cousin of the president and a crucial part of the country’s government before he joined the rebel faction.
The URF may work in conjunction with several groups in the region and be predominately Muslim, but it cannot be considered a jihadi movement or even ideologically similar to these different groups. The Chadian government is currently fighting Boko Haram, ISGS, and AQIM among others around the Lake Chad Basin, but those groups are focused more on religious ideology than politics.
One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist
The French support for Chad fits into the legal framework of a defense cooperation agreement set up in 1976, though since that date it’s been followed with broad interpretation. Yet the question arises: Is keeping Déby in power the same as fighting terrorism? If the answer is no, then it is difficult to comprehend why the URF fighters would be viewed as jihadis. The airstrikes on the rebels become puzzling, too, when looking at the mandate of Operation Barkhane.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian defended the strikes in front of French lawmakers after he was questioned why France was again propping up African strongmen. He argued Déby has been a strong ally in the fight against jihadis in the region.
One of the most vociferous rebukes in parliament came from the far-left deputy Clementine Autain: “It all seems like a pretext to give firmer support to Déby’s regime.” He added, “I’m astonished by this unconditional support for Déby, while you pass over in silence his authoritarian practices and his human rights violations.”
“There was a written request by the chief of state,” Le Drian countered.
Some French analysts such as Roland Marchal are also surprised by the French military’s latest strike. He was quoted in the New York Times asking, “How can we convince the Europeans to have a decent policy in Africa when we do this in Chad?”
He added, “France is promoting this discourse on jihadist movements, that they spring from bad governance and human rights violations. But if you look at Chad, you have exactly the same thing,” Mr. Marchal said. “With such good friends, why do you need enemies?”
Chadian officials have cleverly used the War on Terror to their advantage by rebranding rebels as terrorists and mercenaries. Déby’s government was also part of France’s intervention in Mali and therefore gained recognition as a trusted partner in the region. After Chad was placed on Trump’s Muslim ban list, allies quickly and successfully lobbied to get Chad off the list, since it was a trusted partner in the War on Terror. According to some experts, due to the fight in the Lake Chad basin, the Chadian military is largely overstretched, leaving the country in need of French strikes to protect it from rebels.
Opposition figure Saleh Kebzabo was quoted in the New York Times stating, “We doubt the legality of it. We think it was a political error. Barkhane’s mission is not to interfere in internal Chadian affairs.” He then asked, “Is the French position to maintain the government in place, even by force? Déby has imposed a dictatorship on us.”
The French government seems to subscribe to the mantra of “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” Yes, Déby has been a reliable partner in the GWOT, but is it worth it in the face of human rights violations? Furthermore, it is disputable if this latest attack on the convoy was absolutely necessary given that it occurred so far from the capital. It seems the strikes were a political move by France to show its commitment to Déby’s government. However, it risks inviting the resentment of the opposition, who will not soon forget this support. Parallels can be drawn to America’s support for the Shah of Persia in Iran, and the rest is history. Only time will tell if this strategy will work for the French government.