Chad gained independence from France in 1960, but remained closely linked to the former colonial power. It joined the Central African Republic, Congo and Gabon as part of a multilateral military assistance pact with Paris. The pact gave the French the use of a base outside the Chadian capital N’Djamena (called Fort-Lamy in 1960), as well as granting the French the automatic right to overfly the country. France, in return for these rights, was to provide each nation with defence from external threats and was to help maintain internal security if requested.
The security clause meant that each signatory of the pact could request French intervention to maintain the security of its government. The French Government, however, reserved the right to treat each request on a case-by-case basis, thus opening the possibility of a refusal if involvement would be contrary to French national interest as perceived by the government. The Chadian Government also signed a military technical assistance agreement under which the French provided equipment, training and advisers. N’Djamena thus took on the function of providing one of the main French bases in Africa, giving France a facility for the rapid deployment of troops to any of the former French African colonies that required protection.
It was not long before Chad called for help. Chad was split on distinct tribal and religious lines, with those in the north being Islamic Arab and Berber tribes, while in the south black African Christian and animist tribes predominated. The tensions between the two communities rose until conflict was inevitable. A rebellion against President Tombalbaye’s government broke out in 1965. The rebels formed themselves into the Front for the National Liberation of Chad (FROLINAT), and it soon became clear that the Chadian Government could not contain the violence.
As a result, a request for assistance was delivered to Paris, and from April 1969 troops were sent to help contain the rebellion. The Legion was deployed as part of the package. They found that the traditional problems associated with fighting in the desert remained, many of which would have been familiar to legionnaires at the end of the nineteenth century.
Disease, the difficulty in finding drinking water, logistical challenges and the doubtful support of some of the local population were familiar foes. The intervention mainly comprised patrol operations, although there were one or two notable actions where the Legion was involved. In October 1969, a French aircraft spotted a small group of armed men resting in the bush, and a Legion column was sent to investigate. It transpired that the men were part of a group of 100 rebels. A brisk battle ensued, and 68 of the enemy were killed.
The following year, a company of legionnaires was sent to seize the airstrip at Zouar, which was under rebel control. The rebels were taken completely by surprise by an airborne landing by 2 REP, and they retreated to their hideouts in the nearby hills. The paratroops followed them, and engaged them. The ensuing battle lasted for a day and a half, and by the end of it, the enemy force had been routed. Some 50 rebels were killed, for the loss of one dead legionnaire. A few months later, in November 1970, another battle between 2 REP and a concentrated enemy force left another 50 rebels dead.
As well as acting against the rebels, the Legion was employed in training Chadian forces so that they would be better able to deal with the revolt. By 1972, it was felt that the rebellion had been suppressed sufficiently to allow the French force to be reduced. This did not, however, mean the end of the fighting. Libya (supporting the northern tribes) occupied the mineral-rich Aouzou Strip that lay between it and Chad in 1973, and began providing support to the rebels.
Tombalbaye was overthrown in 1975, and disagreements between the French and General Felix Malloum’s government resulted in the removal of the few remaining French combat forces. Despite this, the French remained committed to the original pact, which was to see French forces return to Chad in 1978, when the political situation deteriorated.
An armoured squadron from 1 REC and a company from 1 REI were sent, and began a series of short operational tours for the Legion. The tours were short because of the experiences of the 1969 deployment, which had seen men fall ill if they were in country for much longer than four months. Yet the Legion saw exposure to operations in Chad as offering immensely valuable experience to its soldiers.
The first action by the Legion came in April 1978 at the northern town of Salal, when an armoured car from a 1 REC patrol engaged a rebel armoured personnel carrier and destroyed it. The rebel troops in the town were persuaded to leave by a swift bombardment from the 1 REC patrol’s 90mm (3.5in) guns. A month later, a combined 1 REC and 2 REP force took the town of Ati from the rebels before moving on to seize the neighbouring town of Djedda. The intervention ended in 1980, when General Malloum went into exile, and was replaced by General Goukouni Weddeye, the leader of one of the northern factions. The last elements of the Legion force left Chad in May 1980, the country apparently becoming more stable.
More political unrest ensued, however, with Goukouni being replaced by Hissen Habre. Habre had been prime minister under Malloum, and then an ally of Goukouni until the two disagreed, leading to renewed fighting. Libya intervened at Goukouni’s request, only for Colonel Qadhafi to withdraw his troops when the French Government complained. Habre finally managed to drive Goukouni into the north of Chad, beginning the so-called Second Republic. Although in control of the capital, Habre did not hold all of the country, which was, in effect, partitioned along the 16th parallel. A Libyan military presence remained in the north, especially in the Aouzou Strip.
A renewed offensive in 1983 by Goukouni’s GUNT faction (supported by the Libyans), prompted Habre to make an urgent request for direct intervention. President Mitterand was reluctant to accede to the plea, but after appeals from other francophone African states and from Washington (now concerned about Libyan intentions) the French launched Operation Manta. The French forces acted as a buffer between the GUNT/Libyan forces and the Chadian Government troops, and a peace settlement was negotiated during 1984. Both France and Libya were to withdraw their troops, while some legitimacy was granted to Goukouni, who was allowed to establish a provisional government for the territory under his control. The Libyans broke their part of the agreement, and in February 1986 pushed into Chadian territory. The Libyan incursion triggered a further French deployment, Operation Epervier. The Legion was committed along with French air assets, but solely for defensive purposes. The French Government wished to send a clear signal to the Libyans, however, to convince them that French forces would fight if the Libyans pushed south of the 16th Parallel.
To achieve this, an air raid was launched against the newly built Ouadi Doum air base, which had been built in Goukouni-controlled territory by the Libyans. The attack succeeded in rendering the airfield temporarily unusable. Meanwhile, an airlift of equipment to the Chadian Government took place. The situation appeared to have stabilized, but the GUNT faction then broke apart as the Libyans attempted to increase their level of control over the north of the country.
The Libyans now found themselves facing a rebellion in which Goukouni asked Habre for assistance as nationalism took precedence over internal dispute.
The Libyans reacted vigorously, moving several thousand troops into northern Chad. The Chadian Government then launched an offensive into the north, which met with considerable success. Qadhafi responded by ordering air strikes well to the south of the 16th parallel, and this prompted another French attack on Ouadi Doum, as well as the deployment of more troops to support Operation Epervier, including elements of 2 REI.
By late 1987, both sides were exhausted, and the Libyans had been evicted from all of northern Chad apart from the Aouzou Strip. Negotiations over the Strip continued against a background of internal political strife in Chad, until finally, in 1994, the International Court of Justice ordered that the Strip be returned to Chad. In amongst this upheaval, the Legion maintained a presence in Chad as a nominal peacekeeping force. The legionnaires carried out a variety of activities, mostly relating to training, but also provided basic medical care for tribesmen. By the late-1990s, the challenge presented by Chad had effectively ended.