France had initially announced the deployment of 1,200 troops to the Central African Republic, with the focus of their operations being to deliver support to African Union peacekeepers and to patrol roads in the west toward the border with Cameroon. Following the successful voting of the U.N. resolution and the initial deployment of more French forces to Bangui, Seleka rebels started to leave the capital. As these rebels left, local Christian self-defense militias and remaining military units loyal to former President Francois Bozize started attacking Muslim neighborhoods and remaining Seleka elements. This escalation, resulting in almost 400 deaths Dec. 5-6 in Bangui as well as violence in other population centers such as Bossangoa, is likely to have led France to increase its deployment to 1,600 troops — reportedly already on the ground — and to expand the mission's objectives to include disarmament.
The current French deployment has the numbers and equipment to secure areas that have seen fighting between former Seleka rebels and local Christian self-defense militias as well as military units still loyal to Bozize, such as Bangui, Bossangoa and Bouca. However, the Central African Republic is vast — it is 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the capital to the remote eastern region where many rebel groups, such as the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army, have managed to survive for a long time despite international attempts to eliminate them. It is thus unlikely that the French forces and African Union peacekeepers will be able to eliminate all rebel activity.
Update on the Operations
After violence escalated in several main towns following the arrival of the French forces and the adoption of the Security Council resolution, the situation has been relatively calm in recent days. Militias opposed to the Seleka rebels, who used to be part of a rebel alliance that brought current President Michel Djotodia to power in March, and remaining military units still loyal to Bozize launched attacks on Seleka rebels in Bangui and Bossangoa, a northern hot spot of rebel violence. French patrols in the capital have kept violence down, though occasional gunshots are still reported — and in fact, two French soldiers were killed in a skirmish with remaining rebels in Bangui. In addition, anti-Seleka elements have allegedly been regrouping outside the city.
About 800 French personnel have been tasked with patrolling the capital and protecting the airport and several French interests, consisting mostly of the embassy and neighborhoods where French citizens live. The French forces have been conducting patrols along the main streets of the capital, both from their armored vehicles and on foot. Some of these patrols have been conducted jointly with African Union peacekeepers, currently numbering about 3,000 troops throughout the country, with a concentration in Bangui. France has pushed for an increase of this African Union force to 6,000 soldiers, up from the originally planned 3,600. (Separately, the United States has said it would assist by airlifting 850 Burundian troops into the country.) The French and African troops within the capital have so far been able to disarm rebels in the streets of Bangui, and a large group of the rebels have been confined to barracks in Bangui designated by the French troops.
Approximately 400 other French troops entered the Central African Republic from Cameroon over the weekend. They advanced through the town of Bouar on to Bossembele, securing a main road connecting Bangui to Cameroon. The troops reported no resistance during their operations along this route. Another 100 troops have advanced north from Bangui, passing through Bossembele on to Bossangoa. At Bossangoa, they reported no signs of violence, although they did encounter a large number of internally displaced persons. Patrolling these roads enables France to cover a large section of the country that connects the capital to the Cameroonian border as well as the areas that have seen continued rebel violence.
Rafale fighter aircraft deployed from the French air base in Chad's capital, N'Djamena, have supported French operations. These aircraft have overflown Bossangoa and Bangui in a show of force while also conducting reconnaissance. Several rotary wing aircraft have also been deployed from French bases in Africa as well as from France. These aircraft currently are being used to provide aerial reconnaissance capabilities to French ground troops.
France has insisted its troops are conducting an impartial operation in the country, intending to put a stop to the violence, a task for which it needed to increase the size of its deployment. France wants its involvement to be seen as contributing to stabilizing the country, especially after its actions to block a South African intervention in March created the conditions for the humanitarian conflict to persist. Moreover, France does not want to be perceived as providing unilateral support for Djotodia. In fact, as the Central African Republic approaches elections, French President Francois Hollande has said that there is no way that a president who is unable to control the violence in his country, referring to Djotodia, could be left in power. Djotodia himself has already agreed to step down after elections, which are expected to take place by 2015.
While France has suffered two casualties early in the operation, the leaders of the operation claim that the situation in Bangui and Bossangoa has been stabilized, with rebels disarmed, confined to barracks or vacating population centers. The French population understands that these kinds of operations are likely to result in casualties, but public support for the intervention could drop off if more French soldiers are killed. From a political point of view, Hollande was particularly concerned about giving France's intervention as much international legitimacy as possible. To that end, he secured support from the Security Council, the approval of regional governments, funding from the European Union and even sought logistical support from the United States, Belgium and Spain. Paris understands the importance of not allowing its interventions in its former African colonies to be perceived as unilateral moves. However, Paris is also concerned about a potential backlash in its approval ratings if these operations result in a substantial number of casualties.
Ultimately, due to factors beyond France's control, the attainable objectives of military operations of this scale will be limited to displacing rebels from main population centers or disarming them, but they will not be sufficient to remove rebel activity from the country.