France Enlists Shady Friends to Help Fight Terrorists Abroad
Helicopter shootdown reveals a secretive war with questionable allies
by PETER DOERRIE
When a helicopter carrying three French soldiers was reportedly shot down near Benghazi a few weeks ago, it confirmed what had been speculated about for months. France is waging war on Islamist groups in Libya with special forces and reconnaissance assets.
The French government initially denied allegations, made in the French newspaper Le Monde, that it was waging a secret war in Libya. The newspaper reported that French troops are actively aiding local forces fighting the Islamic State and other groups, collecting intelligence and launching targeted strikes.
The Benghazi Defense Brigades, a group loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter and published a photo of what it claimed to be the body of one of the French soldiers.
As a consequence, the French government owned up to its involvement in Libya. “Special forces are there, of course, to help and to make sure France is present everywhere in the struggle against terrorists,” a French government spokesman said.
The statement perfectly summarizes France’s doctrine of countering the threat posed by Islamist groups with military power as far away from home as possible, with all measures deemed necessary.
But to ensure France is present everywhere requires compromises and partnering with questionable warlords and militants abroad — including inside Libya. The statement also reflects a fear within France that the country is under siege, leading the government to fight a largely ineffective battle at unsustainable costs.
Not counting the ongoing intervention in Libya, France has deployed 3,000 troops to take on Islamic extremists in Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. France is also one of the main partners in the coalition targeting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
But France’s recent embrace of military interventions actually predates the rise of Islamist groups as a major threat to stability in the region and, by extension, to France. For one, France was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the 2011 NATO-led intervention into the Libyan civil war, which toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
While the intervention and the U.N. Security Council resolution that provided the legal justification for it were sold to Russia and China purely as a way to impose a no-fly zone and to protect civilians, it quickly turned into an aggressive bombing mission in support of the forces opposing Gaddafi. Even Gaddafi’s ultimate capture and death were initiated by a missile fired from a U.S. drone.
The deception on part of France and its allies has had long-term diplomatic consequences, most prominently manifested in Russia’s complete refusal to compromise over resolving the civil war in Syria.
More importantly, France’s aggressive move to dethrone Gaddafi reflected the government’s fear that Libya’s civil war could destabilize the country, the region and ultimately Europe itself if it wasn’t resolved quickly. After all, Gaddafi was an important vanguard in the European Union’s attempt to block migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, and the civil war threatened to open these routes.
Of course this is exactly what happened despite the intervention, but from the perspective of the French government in 2011, removing Gaddafi swiftly was an attractive proposition. While the dictator had been on good terms with Europe’s political elite, allegedly even contributing to president Nicolas Sarkozy’s election campaign, he was also a bit of an embarrassment and certainly not a pleasant character to deal with.
And Libya did not stabilize after Gaddafi’s death, but entered a prolonged political crisis and a second civil war which erupted in 2014. In the meantime, Malian Tuareg mercenaries who fought for Gaddafi facilitated a rebellion in Mali, which in turn led to a coup, the emergence of hard-line Islamist groups and the near-collapse of the state.
Again, France’s reaction in Mali must have looked like the only reasonable option for the government at the time — stage a full-scale intervention leaning heavily on ground troops.
Meanwhile, Nigeria increasingly lost its grip on the Boko Haram insurgency, which declared its loyalty to the Islamic State, and began launching cross-border raids into Cameroon, Chad and Niger in 2015.
Now increasingly focused combating Islamist extremists, France restructured its presence in the Sahel into Operation Barkhane, integrating forces that had been present in former French colonies in the region for decades.
But the most striking aspect of France’s military presence in the Sahel is the choice of making alliances with shady, dangerous characters.
In Libya, one of the most significant backlashes to the downing of the helicopter, which killed three French soldiers, came from the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli. While the French government claimed its presence in Libya was “to help,” it obviously hadn’t informed the authorities in Tripoli of its intention to do so.
Instead, it seems that France (like the United States and Britain, allegedly) has thrown its military weight behind the controversial Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who publicly opposes the administration in Tripoli.
Haftar, who spent his exile from Gaddafi-led Libya in Virginia, is known for his opposition to Islamist groups, but has also made clear that any solution to the crisis in Libya that doesn’t reflect his personal ambitions is not acceptable.
In Mali, French forces have continue to tolerate Tuareg control over important towns. And perhaps France’s most important regional ally remains Chadian Pres. Idris Deby, whose forces — for all their desert fighting prowess — are notorious for human rights abuses and supporting rebel forces in the Central African Republic.
Again, from the perspective of the French government, now under Pres. Francois Hollande, these dubious friends must seem like the lesser of two evils. Hollande’s responsibility is primarily keeping French citizens and territory safe, and if supporting warlords abroad is what it takes to do so, then so be it.
But there should be no misconception that it was French-supported crooks such as Gaddafi — and the toleration of corruption, criminality and incompetence of allies such as Mali — that have led to the current mess. Just like U.S. meddling contributed significantly to the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Running with the wrong crowd, even in the world of international politics, has the tendency to bite you in the back when you least need it.