On Friday, the French announced that they killed more than 30 jihadists in three separate operations over the previous two days in the Sahel. These operations come in the wake of three raids on terrorist camps earlier this year

These operations took place in the Liptako-Gourma zone in the Sahel region where the borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso meet. This Liptako-Gourma zone is a semi-arid, very sparsely populated area that has been the scene of increasing violence in recent months. The French troops, conducting the ongoing Operation Barkhane, targeted the jihadists in the hilly terrain to take away an area that the jihadists had recently been operating in with relative impunity. 

French military spokesman Colonel Frédéric Barbry stated that in two of the targeted strikes, the French troops deployed a Mirage 2000 fighter plane, an MQ-9 Reaper Drone, a Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopter as well as a Cougar transport helicopter. They were sent after enemy jihadist troops — members of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) — were spotted in the area. 

Colonel Barbry said that the two attacks “neutralized around 20 terrorists” and destroyed several vehicles. Barbry added that in another operation earlier in the week, the French forces had also “neutralized 10 terrorists.” The French use the term neutralize to denote that the enemy combatants were either killed, wounded, or captured during the operation

Last Sunday, the French government said that it would boost its military presence in the Sahel by deploying 600 fresh troops to its already 4,500-strong operation in Mali and the four other countries that make up the G5 in the Sahel region. 

Many of those new 600 troops will be operating in the Liptako-Gourma zone. They include units with extensive combat experience, including French Commandos, and will bring with them over 100 lightly and heavily armored military vehicles, as well as some logistical resupply vehicles. The bulk of the incoming troops are scheduled to arrive by the end of February.

This surge will coincide with a new French-led European force (Task Force Takuba) that will operate out of Mali and is expected to have a substantial increase in intelligence gathering capability. This will include both human and technical means. 

Operation Barkhane has been operating in the region since 2014. French President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of the G5 Sahel group — Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad — launched a new plan last month to fight jihadists in the area after a summit meeting in the southern French city of Pau.

Despite these efforts by the G5, as well as European partners Estonia and the Netherlands, the jihadists have been able to exploit the security vacuum in the sparsely populated areas where the host nation governments have little power to counter them.

The ongoing violence against the civilian population has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians and has significantly impacted the wellbeing of many of the region’s inhabitants. The U.N. Security Council puts the number of civilians requiring assistance in Mali alone at over 4 million. 

The United States has about 1,000 troops, about one-sixth of its total troop strength in Africa, stationed in the Sahel. More importantly, the U.S. operates a drone base in Niger that has supported the efforts of the G5. 

However, the U.S. has been weighing the options for cutting its troop strength in Africa and South America to counter near-peer potential adversaries like China and Russia. But both of these countries are attempting to garner more influence on the African continent. A U.S. withdrawal would hurt France’s efforts in the Sahel and make the entire region less safe than it already is.