French, U.S. Special Forces Agree to Beef Up Partnership in Africa

The new agreement shows that counterterrorism will still be a top focus for the Pentagon.

French and American special operators will work together more closely on counterterrorism operations in Africa under an agreement signed by defense leaders on Friday, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said.

The agreement, which follows an announcement that France will cut its troop presence in the Sahel roughly in half, indicates America is not done fighting terrorism even as President Joe Biden withdraws U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Parly said she and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “signed a roadmap to strengthen even more the relationship between our two special forces,” during a meeting at the Pentagon.

“We can rely on the strong support from the United States, especially in the counterterrorism operations” in the Sahel, Parly said, in an interview with Defense One’s Executive Editor Kevin Baron hosted by the Atlantic Council, in Washington. Parly declined to reveal details of the special operations forces agreement but said the French rely on American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, “which are particularly useful to get the right information [and] intelligence on those groups.”

A Defense Department spokesman did not reply to a question seeking more details about what the partnership would entail.

The increased partnership in the Sahel comes as the Pentagon is also considering returning U.S. special operators to Somalia to train local forces to fight al-Shabab, the New York Times reported, after former President Donald Trump abruptly ordered all American troops out of the country in December.

France has operated in the Sahel, a region of Africa between the Sahara Desert to the north and the savanna to the south, targeting terrorists from al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Last month, Macron announced that France was ending its Barkhane mission in the Sahel after eight years of fighting, and two coups in Mali. But during a virtual meeting of Sahel region leaders on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he would cut the number of French troops in the Sahel from more than 5,000 to between 2,500 to 3,000 by next year. The troop reduction in the Sahel will allow the French military to focus on the growing terrorist threat in southern Africa. Parly said the change did not reflect a desire by France to pull out of counterterrorism missions, rather, it was to adjust to more recent conditions.

“Macron was absolutely convinced that we had to adapt our military layout as the terrorist groups also adapt their behavior,” Parly said.

Violent extremist organizations in the Sahel were “neither degraded nor contained,” according to the most recent Pentagon inspector general report on the region, which was released in November.

“French counterterrorism operations since 2013 have likely denied [violent extremist organizations] the ability to establish permanent control of and consistent safe havens in the Sahel region,” the report says. “However, the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali created instability that led to the growth of al-Qaeda and ISIS-aligned groups that continue to expand operations throughout the Sahel.”

The report also said the United States does not conduct strikes in the Sahel except to defend its own troops.

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