Washington—Colonel Patrick de Vathaire, Senior French Representative at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, spoke at the National Defense University on Dec. 1, 2011, about how his country successfully ran small military operations in Ivory Coast.
His remarks were part of a panel discussion on light-footprint stabilization operations during the Center for Complex Operations’ Seventh International Lessons Learned Conference. Panelists focused on three case studies that had a small, light footprint and yielded significant strategic gains. They looked at U.S. efforts in Colombia and the Philippines and French action in Ivory Coast. The main message to come out of the discussion: Bigger is not always better.
“As far as Africa is concerned, we do not need a lot of forces to stabilize a country,” de Vathaire told an audience of more than 100. “Many times with large forces you destabilize the country further and rebuilding that stability is costly. The best way is the French way—small units, a good picture of the political situation, and withdrawing as soon as possible.”
The French military has more than a century of experience in the Ivory Coast. It became involved in the country’s most recent crises, which began with a coup in 1999, the country splitting into two in 2002, and a violent election season in 2010. French forces were deployed as part of the UN peacekeeping mission beginning in 2004. Their numbers never exceeded 5,000.
Conference organizers sought de Vathaire’s insights because of his knowledge and intimate experience in Africa. He took part in operations in Ivory Coast three times, two of them on the ground in the West African country as head of operations for a special-forces unit and as acting commander of the battalion stationed in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s capital.
De Vathaire said Ivory Coast is a good example of complicated situations that can confront the international community whenever it gets involved in Africa—a weak national military presence, a bevy of civilian victims, a large UN mission, and obstructionist officials who made the situation worse. But the international response—military forces supporting political, economic, and diplomatic actions—ultimately led to stability and resolution of years of internal conflict and post-election chaos.
U.S.-French cooperation and coordination on African issues is extensive. De Vathaire said he had always seen deep involvement between the two militaries and their operations. During the 2010-2011 crisis, when former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo refused to relinquish office though he had lost the election, U.S. officers embedded with the French military in Abidjan and in Paris to coordinate operations. The two also worked hand-in-hand with the African Union and the EU.
“The International Community succeeded at establishing democracy in the Ivory Coast,” de Vathaire said. “While this took some time, the Ivoirian people now control their own destiny.”