France and its allies in a European force have announced that they will begin to withdraw their troops from Mali after nearly 10 years of fighting armed unrest.
A statement signed by France and its African and European allies and released on Thursday said “multiple obstructions” by the ruling military government meant conditions were no longer in place to operate in Mali.
The decision applies to both the French Barkhane force in the Sahel and the European Takuba force that Paris had tried to forge with its allies.
“The political, operational and legal conditions are no longer met to effectively pursue their current military commitment in the fight against terrorism in Mali,” the statement said.
The allies have therefore “decided to begin the coordinated withdrawal of their respective military resources dedicated to these operations from Malian territory”.
For his part, French President Emmanuel Macron “completely” rejected the idea that France had let down its former colony, adding: “We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose responsibility we do not share. strategy and hidden objectives”.
full of problems
The deployment in Mali has been strewn with pitfalls for France. Of the 53 soldiers killed serving his Barkhane mission in West Africa, 48 of them died in Mali.
France initially deployed troops against rebels in Mali in 2013, but the violence was never fully suppressed, and now new fears have emerged of a rebel push into the Gulf of Guinea.
Even after Mali’s withdrawal, however, the allies promised to remain engaged in the fight against “terrorism” in other countries, including Niger.
“They nevertheless agreed to continue their joint action against terrorism in the Sahel region, including in Niger and the Gulf of Guinea,” the statement said.
“They have engaged with them in political and military consultations with the aim of defining the modalities of this joint action by June 2022.”
The announcement of the withdrawal came at a critical time for Macron, just days before a long-awaited statement from the president that he will stand for another term in the April elections.
It also coincided with Macron seeking a leadership role in international diplomacy as he pressed Russia to defuse the standoff over Ukraine.
Especially with the French elections looming, Macron’s priority is to ensure that any withdrawal does not invite comparisons with the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan last year.
Macron set the stage for the announcement on Wednesday with a dinner bringing together the leaders of France’s main allies in the Sahel region – Chad, Mauritania and Niger.
Officials from Mali and Burkina Faso, which also recently experienced a coup, were not invited to the meeting.
A total of 25,000 foreign troops are currently deployed in the Sahel region.
They include around 4,300 French soldiers, who under a reduction announced last year are expected to drop to around 2,500 in 2023 from a peak of 5,400.
Other forces deployed in Mali are the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA created in 2013 and EUTM Mali, an EU military training mission which aims to improve the capacity of the Malian army to fight armed rebels.
About 2,400 French soldiers are deployed in Mali as part of Operation Barkhane as well as the European Takuba force set up in 2020, which was expected to increase in number as the French deployment was reduced.
According to a French source, who asked not to be identified by name, even after his departure, France will provide MINUSMA and EUTM with air support and medical reinforcement for a while.
But the withdrawal from Paris could set the stage for other European powers like Britain or Germany to abandon their role in multinational missions.
“The departure of Barkhane and Takuba creates a vacuum,” Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara said on Wednesday.
In the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea, “national armies will have to face problems on our national territories, and that is our philosophy,” he told broadcasters RFI and France 24.
Relations between France and Mali have sunk to new lows after the military government led by Assimi Goita refused to stick to a timetable for a return to civilian rule.
The West also accuses Mali of using the services of the highly controversial Russian mercenary group Wagner to shore up its position, a move that gives Moscow a new foothold in the region.
“It is an inglorious end to an armed intervention which began in euphoria and which ends, nine years later, against a backdrop of crisis between Mali and France”, comments the daily Le Monde.