Which Way Out? – France Rules Out Any ‚Immediate‘ Troop Reduction in Sahel

Written by | Thursday, February 18th, 2021

President Emmanuel Macron has ruled out an immediate drawdown in France’s 5,100-strong Barkhane forces battling armed groups in the Sahel region of West Africa, describing a rushed exit as a mistake. The French leader said he was pushing back a decision on a troop reduction after a virtual summit of the so-called G5 Sahel countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger – and their allies to discuss the future of their military campaign in the region. “Changes that are likely to be significant will be made to our military deployment in the Sahel when the time comes, but they will not be made immediately,” Macron commented on its decision. France was originally expected to announce Operation Barkhane troop drawdown as Sahel leaders increasingly mull negotiations with armed groups.
Armed groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), once confined to lawless areas of northern Mali, have in recent years spread across the arid scrublands of the Sahel, into Burkina Faso and Niger, stoking ethnic tensions while jockeying for power and attacking security forces, which have also faced accusations of grave abuses. The conflict in the western portion of the Sahel largely between state forces and armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda has ravaged the semi-arid strip south of the Sahara Desert for much of the past 10 years, killing thousands of people and forcing millions from their homes. The deteriorating security situation has created an enormous humanitarian crisis, destroying fragile agricultural economies and hobbling aid efforts. Almost 7,000 people are reported to have died due to worsening fighting in 2020 the “unrelenting violence” had internally displaced more than two million people, up from 490,000 at the start of 2019.
France has 5,100 troops stationed across the Sahel, alongside UN, American and European partners. At the G5 Sahel summit, the grouping was originally expected to announce a drawdown of 600 soldiers from Barkhane, its military operation in the region. France, the region’s former colonial power, is searching for an exit strategy eight years after it sent troops to intervene in Mali against rebel groups who had occupied the north of the country. It has dispersed the rebels from northern Mali but its operation in the Sahel has cost billions of dollars and scores of French soldiers have been killed, sparking domestic calls for a strategy review. But, as Macron has now stressed, “in the coming months, we will not change our presence. We will launch other important operations, and we will above all be reinforced by the Chadian battalion, by the Malian mobilisation, and by contributions from Mauritania.”

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