France’s Forever War in Sahel: Macron Reassures African Leaders But Concers Over ‚Withdrawal‘ Remain

Written by | Saturday, July 10th, 2021

President Emmanuel Macron will seek to reassure Sahel leaders of his commitment to Africa’s anti-terror fight today (9 July), at their first talks since he announced a reduction of French troops in West Africa. The decision last month to scale back French forces — and hopefully convince EU allies to step up their presence — opens an uncertain phase in the fight against jihadist insurgents that control wide swathes of West Africa. The French leader warned in comments published earlier in May that France would pull its troops out of Mali if it lurches towards radical Islamism following the second coup in nine months. The recent political turmoil in Mali and Chad, where military juntas are now in charge, raises further questions about whether local governments can effectively tackle the Islamist threat. But France has not given details on how many of the 5,100 soldiers in its Barkhane counter-terrorism force will remain in the region.
Defence Minister Florence Parly said the government would announce the changes “fairly soon”. Parly insisted that “this transformation does not mean a departure from the Sahel, nor that we are going to let up our counter-terrorism operations.” A source familiar with the plans revealed that troop levels will fall to around 3,500 over the next year, and to 2,500 by the end of 2023. Commandos in the “Sabre” task force will remain to hunt down the leaders of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, the source said on condition of anonymity. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic the talks with the presidents of Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania will be held by video, with only Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum travelling to Paris.
Announcing the Barkhane drawdown eight years after French soldiers were first deployed against a jihadist advance in Mali, Macron warned that military force “cannot be a substitute for political stability”. He has pressed Sahel leaders to win public support by stamping out corruption in their impoverished states, and by restoring government control and services in areas where Islamist fighters have closed schools and driven tens of thousands from their homes. The results have been discouraging, with France going so far as to suspend military cooperation with Mali last month after officers staged a second coup in nine months. Meanwhile, the head of Chad’s military junta, Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, travelled to Paris this week for talks with Macron, who promised more French aid after Deby’s father was killed in April while on the frontline of a battle against rebels. General Francois Lecointre, France’s armed forces chief of staff, told the Senate last month that “the political events in Mali and Chad regularly pose the question about our commitment to the Sahel.”

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