France to pull troops from Mali after decade-long jihadist fight

The decision applies to both the 2,400 French troops in Mali, where France first deployed in 2013, and a smaller European force of several hundred soldiers

February 17, 2022 10:16 pm | Updated 10:16 pm IST - Paris

The deployment has been fraught with problems for France -- of the 53 French soldiers killed serving in West Africa’s Sahel region, 48 died in Mali. File

The deployment has been fraught with problems for France -- of the 53 French soldiers killed serving in West Africa’s Sahel region, 48 died in Mali. File | Photo Credit: AP

France announced on Thursday that it would withdraw its troops from Mali over a breakdown in relations with the country's ruling junta, after nearly 10 years of fighting a jihadist insurgency that still poses a major threat to the West African nation and beyond.

The deployment has been fraught with problems for France -- of the 53 French soldiers killed serving in West Africa's Sahel region, 48 died in Mali.

"Multiple obstructions" by the military junta that took power in August 2020 meant the conditions were no longer in place to operate in Mali, said a statement signed by France and its African and European allies.

The decision applies to both the 2,400 French troops in Mali, where France first deployed in 2013, and a smaller European force of several hundred soldiers, called Takuba, that was created in 2020 with the aim of taking the burden off French forces.

"We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share," President Emmanuel Macron told a news conference, saying that he "completely" rejected the idea that France had failed its mission in the country.

He said that France's bases in Gossi, Menaka and Gao in Mali would be closed within the next four to six months.

The withdrawal would be carried out in an "orderly" manner, he vowed.

The announcement comes at a critical time for Mr. Macron, just days before he is expected to make a long-awaited declaration that he will stand for a second term at elections in April.

Mr. Macron's priority will now be to ensure that the withdrawal does not invite comparisons with the chaotic U.S. departure from Afghanistan last year.

France first deployed the troops at Mali's request in 2013, and while the insurgents were prevented from reaching the capital Bamako, the insurgency was never fully quelled.

Two years later the rebels regrouped and moved into the centre of Mali, an ethnic powder keg, before launching raids on neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Now, new fears have emerged of a jihadist push toward the Gulf of Guinea.

"It is an inglorious end to an armed intervention that began in euphoria and which ends, nine years later, against a backdrop of crisis between Mali and France," wrote French daily Le Monde.

Mr. Macron denied that the intervention had been in vain.

"What would have happened in 2013 if France had not chosen to intervene? You would for sure have had the collapse of the Malian state," he said, hailing the decision of his predecessor Francois Hollande to deploy troops.

France and its allies vowed to remain engaged in fighting terror in the region, including in Niger and the Gulf of Guinea, he said, adding that the outline of this action would be made clear in June.

Mr. Macron warned that Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group had made the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea nations "a priority for their strategy of expansion," and said the Takuba forces in Mali would be shifted to neighbouring Niger.

Speaking alongside Mr. Macron, Senegalese President Macky Sall said fighting "terrorism in the Sahel cannot be the business of African countries alone."

The announcement on Mali came ahead of a two-day summit of EU and African leaders in Brussels starting Thursday, which seeks to strengthen ties with pledges of new investments for a continent where China and Russia are making inroads.

Around 25,000 foreign troops are currently deployed in the Sahel.

They include around 4,600 French soldiers in the mission known as Barkhane, though France last year had already announced the start of a drawdown of the force, which at its peak comprised 5,400 troops.

Army chief of staff spokesman Colonel Pascal Ianni said the Mali withdrawal would mean that within six months there would be 2,500 to 3,000 French soldiers deployed across the region.

In Mali specifically, there is also the United Nations peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, established in 2013, and EUTM Mali, an EU military training mission for the Malian army.

Mr. Macron said France would still provide air and medical support for MINUSMA in the coming months before transferring these responsibilities.

Olivier Salgado, the spokesman for MINUSMA, told AFP that France's pullout was "bound to impact" the mission and the UN would "take the necessary steps to adapt."

In Berlin, German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said she was "very sceptical" that the country's mission in the EUTM could continue in the light of the French decision.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc was awaiting "guarantees" from Mali's military rulers as it weighs the future of its military and civilian training missions.

Relations between France and Mali plunged after the junta led by strongman Assimi Goita refused to stick to a calendar to a return to civilian rule.

The West also accuses Mali of using the services of the hugely controversial Russian mercenary group Wagner to shore up its position, a move that gives Moscow a new foothold in the region.

Mr. Macron accused Wagner of sending more than 800 fighters to the country for the sake of its own "business interests" and shoring up the junta.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.