Leery of new Mali junta, Macron shrinks French role in Sahel

French drawdown has sparked speculations about growing Russian role in the region.
Friday 11/06/2021
French Barkhane soldiers arrive from Gao, Mali, disembark from a US Air Force C130 cargo plane at Niamey, Niger base Wednesday June 9, 2021, before transferring back to their Bases in France. (AP)
French Barkhane soldiers arrive from Gao, Mali, disembark from a US Air Force C130 cargo plane at Niamey, Niger base Wednesday June 9, 2021, before transferring back to their Bases in France. (AP)

PARIS - President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday announced a major drawdown and “profound transformation” of France’s military presence in the Sahel where forces have been battling jihadist insurgents for nearly a decade. At the core of French anti-terrorist operations has been its Barkhane operation in Mali.

Macron made clear that among the factors informing his decision was his annoyance at the endorsement by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) of Mali’s new military strongman Colonel Assimi Goita, who was was sworn in as transitional president on Tuesday.

France has been leading international efforts to force Goita to stand down, restore the deposed president Bah Ndaw and prime minister Moctar Ouane and allow elections. Interestingly, an ECOWAS delegation was reported to have been present in late May when Ndaw and Ouane offered their resignations at the military headquarters where they had been held after being arrested.

Last week, France suspended its joint military operations with Malian forces and stopped providing defence advice, pending “guarantees” that the country’s military rulers will hold elections in February and not negotiate with jihadists.

“We cannot endure ambiguity. We cannot conduct joint operations with powers that decide to talk with groups who shoot on our young,” Macron said.

At a news conference on Thursday, he announced the existing Barkhane operation would end, with France’s presence becoming part of the so-called Takuba international task force in which “hundreds” of French soldiers would form the “backbone”.

France currently has 5,100 troops in the arid and volatile Sahel region, which stretches across Africa under the Sahara desert and spans half a dozen countries.

“The time has come: our commitment in the Sahel will not continue in the same way,” Macron said. “We will undertake a profound transformation of our military presence in the Sahel.”

Details of the framework would be given in coming weeks, he said.

The Barkhane operation dates back to an initial deployment undertaken from January 2013 as Paris sought to respond to growing instability in the region caused by Islamist militants.

For years Macron has tried to get Western allies to help shoulder the burden of an anti-terror fight that aims to stop Islamist extremists from exploiting anger over poverty and ineffective governments.

The killing in April of the veteran leader of Chad, a close Paris ally and the coup in Mali last month have also underlined the threat posed by continued political instability in the region.

— ‘Cannot be substitute’ —

The drawdown would mean the closure of French bases and the reliance on the use of special forces who would be focused on anti-terror operations and military training, Macron said.

The Takuba operation, which is to take over from Barkhane, for now consists of around 600 European special forces based in Mali, half of whom are French, with 140 Swedes and several dozen Estonians and Czechs also taking part with US and British logistical support

Macron has failed to secure significant contributions from larger European allies.

He  explained that the French drawdown had been decided because the “longstanding presence of France … cannot be a substitute for political stability”.

Macron added: “I’m saying it again: France is in Africa only at the request of Africans … to fight against terrorism. But the shape of our presence, an operation abroad involving 5,000 troops, is not adapted any more to the reality of the combats.”

He stressed that France could not be involved in nation-building and expressed frustration with local partners, particularly Mali.

“I don’t think that we can substitute ourselves for a sovereign people in order to build their place for them,” Macron said.

Despite some successes for France’s Barkhane force including last year’s killing of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, extremist insurgents have continued to carry out deadly attacks.

The anti-terroism effort has cost  the lives of 59 French soldiers, prompting calls in France for a review of Barkhane’s mission.

In the Sahel region itself the presence of French forces is also rejected by some politicians and locals as a colonial throwback.

Macron’s announcement could force security in the Sahel up the agenda of a meeting of G7 leaders in Britain from Friday to Sunday, and a summit of the NATO military alliance in Brussels on June 14.

— ‘Putschist’ —

The Sahel is seen by many Western politicians and experts as a major risk because of the growing strength of extremist groups there, as well as its role as a crossroads for arms and people-smuggling.

Local Sahel leaders have warned they would be hard-pressed to keep extremists from making further inroads in case of a rapid French pullout.

Since then, the veteran leader of Chad and close French ally, Idriss Deby Itno, has been killed, while Mali’s coup has badly strained relations with Paris.

Macron also condemned the recognition by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) of Mali’s military strongman Colonel Assimi Goita, who was was sworn in as transitional president on Tuesday.

The recognition of this “putschist” risked creating a “bad legal precedent” for the ECOWAS and its neighbours, said Macron.

Michael Shurkin, director of global programmes at 14 North Strategies, a consultancy based in Dakar, Senegal, said: “(The) truth is that France’s strategy can only work if the Malians do their part, which means improving governance. But Goita’s serial coups suggest the Malians aren’t.”

A French top official said it will take several months to implement the changes to the Barkhane mission. Paris will first hold talks with its European and African partners, he said.

— Russian factor?–

Meanwhile one local observer has suggested that Russian forces could replace the French in Bamako. Siaka Coulibaly, an analyst with the Centre for Public Policy Monitoring by Citizens, in Burkina Faso, said Macron’s decision was not a surprise, but he was worried about the consequences of the troop reduction.

“The reduction of Barkhane troops will not have an impact on Mali since Russian troops will arrive and replace them. Meanwhile the reduction will have an impact on Burkina Faso, because the terrorists will try to move towards Burkina Faso and they could probably spread to the south,” Coulibaly said.

A Russian involvement in Mali is not as far-fetched as it might at first seem.

In the wake of Mali’s political crisis, there are reports suggesting that the junta leaders were trained in Russia and have ties with the Kremlin, though Goita also received training in the United States which this week has suspended military ties with Mali.

In June 2019 at Moscow’s major international arms fair, Russian defence minister Sergey Shoigu signed a military cooperation deal with his then Malian opposite number.

Shoigu said at the time: “In our opinion, the intensification of military ties is in the interests of our two countries. We want your country to quickly overcome internal problems and succeed in reflecting the onslaught of outside terrorist forces. We are grateful for the [Mali’s] support of Russian foreign policy initiatives. We appreciate Mali’s understanding of our approaches to Ukrainian and Syrian issues.”

Besides the presence of Russian mercenaries working for the Kremlin-close Wagner group in Libya, where they have been supporting Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, Wagner soldiers are also present in the Central African Republic.  Moscow’s arrival in the former French colony has piqued Macron, not least because in 2013 French and African troops saved the country from a genocidal civil war, paving the way for election which brought President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to power.

Macron has since described Touadéra as a “hostage” of the Wagner Group which has been helping the government fights rebels threatening the capital Bangui. Moscow has also signed local mining deals that allow it to explore for gold, diamonds and uranium.

Paris is further angered by the anti-French social media messages that coming from sources close to Mr Touadéra, stirring up resentment against the former colonial power.

Uneasy about the lurch towards Moscow and angered by the anti-French rhetoric, Macron has suspended financial support for the CAR government.