PARIS (AP) — France will broaden its military presence in Africa's turbulent Sahel region with specialized new outposts to better fight the terror threat from extremist groups such as al-Qaida, the defense minister said Tuesday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Jean-Yves Le Drian said France is moving toward a regional counterterrorism approach in former French colonies such as Chad, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. In a quick air and land campaign, French soldiers largely ousted al-Qaida-linked militants from northern Mali last year.
The minister expects to detail the initiative to U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and national security adviser Susan Rice during a trip to Washington this week. France has worked closely with U.S. forces to try to fight extremism in Africa.
The Obama administration backed France's intervention in Mali, holding it up as an example of situations where America's allies can take lead roles in helping less developed countries fight against al-Qaida and other extremists without the need for the U.S. to put boots on the ground.
The counterterrorism plan was presented in detail to President Francois Hollande late last month, and hasn't been publicly announced yet. It will involve creating specialized posts such as for logistics, intelligence-gathering and fighter planes, Le Drian said.
"We are reorganizing our deployment in Africa to be more reactive about potential crises," he said over croissants in a ministry dining room, adorned with a colorful tapestry titled "The Tree of Joy" on the wall. "We will have the same number of soldiers — 3,000 in the Sahel region — but they will be organized differently."
"We are going to reinforce Abidjan an as an entry point, a logistical support post," he said of Ivory Coast's commercial capital. "And then we'll boost the intervention capacity on each of the different sites."
Under the plan, Chad's capital, N'Djamena, will be a hub of French air power in the region and a base for Rafale and Mirage fighters. A site in Niamey, Niger's capital, will be equipped with unmanned aircraft such as France's Harfang and — as of its first official flight on Monday — a U.S.-made Reaper surveillance drone that Le Drian helped authorize France to buy.
The new approach follows strategic recommendations laid out in last review of the nation's security and defense operations that put a new focus on Africa.
Under President Francois Hollande, a longtime friend and Socialist party ally of Le Drian, France has flexed its military muscle like rarely before over the last year. Le Drian has overseen what began as near-solo French efforts in Mali and Central African Republic, where some 1,600 French and 4,600 African troops have been deployed since last month to help stem bloodshed between Christians and Muslims.
A year ago, French troops swooped into vast northern Mali to halt an advance of al-Qaida-linked militants seen as threatening its weak central government, and French forces have been maintaining a presence since then to help Mali return to stability.
Le Drian, who returned Monday from a seventh trip to Mali in the last 12 months, can hardly contain his contentment about developments there: A new president has been elected, its former coup leader is behind bars, and the al-Qaida-linked militants who remain in its arid north are hiding — their one-time infrastructure obliterated by French firepower.
He noted how soldiers marching in a military parade after the inauguration of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in September had worn sneakers and warm-up suits; on Monday, for an annual military holiday, all wore uniforms.
But some militants from al-Qaida's north Africa wing fled Mali to Libya, where the central government has been too weak to ensure security in the south, and Libya border areas where they roam are a "sieve."
"There's no risk that an organized threat will rebuild in the short term" in Mali, Le Drian said. "But there's an overall threat in the Sahel, with bases of departure starting to organize in southern Libya."
He regretted that the West didn't provide "follow-up maintenance" in Libya after NATO air power helped bring down Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, and he said he planned to bring up his concerns about that country in Washington.
Overall, he praised French-American cooperation in the region.
"We need them in support: military, political and technical. I don't think we want Americans to lose interest in this very sensitive zone," Le Drian said. "It's important that the United States realizes that an array of threats is not just for Africa and for Europe."
But Mark Schroder, vice president for Africa analysis at the Stratfor think tank, suggested that might be a hard sell. The United States will "be quite pleased with the role that France has played," but the region remains more of a French interest than a U.S. one.
France's role "relieves the burden from the United States from having to respond to countries in crisis that (it) really has no compelling interest in," he said. "There's no national security threat to the United States — the threats are more to American allies, or indirectly to American interests."
Le Drian's successes haven't just involved battlefields. He helped keep France's defense budget steady at an annual 31.4 billion euros ($42 billion) — despite broad spending cuts by the Socialist government. He also pressed Niger's president to work to help win the release of four French hostages held there for three years.
Next week, Le Drian will receive an award as the "best minister" of 2013 as selected by a panel of parliament journalists — a standout in a Cabinet that polls suggest is seen as ineffective by most French worried about a sluggish economy.
"We have to get out of this spiral, with confidence-builders," he said. "Perhaps the strong image in the polls stems from the way the intervention in Mali has been going. ... It's part of these triggers to confidence."