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France announces Mali troop pullout and rethink of counterterrorism plan for Sahel

PARIS — France alongside its European and international partners announced Thursday the end of its nine-year military counter-insurgency operation in Mali, amid growing tensions with the country’s military junta.

The decision to withdraw from Mali marks a major setback in Paris’ long-term efforts to fight terrorist groups in the region. France has been present in the Sahel since 2013, when then-President François Hollande decided to deploy troops first in Mali, then in the region to fight jihadist terrorism.

President Emmanuel Macron said France will close its military bases in Mali in the next four to six months and redeploy troops in neighboring countries in coordination with EU and international partners.

“The heart of this action will no longer be in Mali but in Niger … and will be distributed in a more balanced way among the countries of the region that will wish it,” Macron said at a press conference at the Elysée Palace with European Council President Charles Michel, Senegal’s President Macky Sall (who is also the current chair of the African Union) and the President of Ghana and of the Economic Community of West African States Nana Akufo-Addo.

Macron was keen to show that the withdrawal takes place amid a broader rethink of military operations in the Sahel, with European and regional partners taking a more active role.

“The role of France is not to replace countries in the region,” Macron said, announcing the decision after a dinner at the Elysée on Wednesday evening with leaders from African countries, countries active in the Sahel region and EU representatives.

French troops represent the biggest military contingent on the ground, with 4,300 soldiers in the Sahel region including approximately 2,500 in Mali, according to the Elysée. That’s out of a total of 25,000 soldiers deployed by France and other countries in the region under different banners, including the United Nations’ MINUSMA mission.

Some 53 French soldiers have been killed in the Sahel, including 48 in Mali, since the beginning of the operation, for which support has faded.

Tensions escalated in recent weeks when the government expelled the French ambassador. Mali’s military junta also went back on previous commitments to hold elections and restore civilian rule following a coup in August 2020 against elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.

Russian connection

The announcement comes as the European Union and the African Union are holding a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. The summit has been partly overshadowed by concerns about the situation in Ukraine, with EU leaders gathering for a last-minute meeting to discuss the Russia situation.

The situation in Mali has deteriorated in the past few months partly because of the presence on the ground of mercenary soldiers from Russia’s Wagner Group, which Paris says is paid to protect the junta.

Asked about the group’s presence and how it tied to broader tensions with Russia, Macron referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public statements that the Russian government wasn’t behind Wagner.

“We should not confuse or link what is happening [in Mali] with other geopolitical issues that occupy us and in which Russia is a sovereign state, a military and diplomatic actor,” Macron said.

But the French president did say Moscow played a role in fueling anti-French sentiment in Mali, weeks after thousands took to the streets of the capital Bamako to celebrate the French ambassador’s expulsion and protest against French presence.

“Many people who express anti-French messages on social networks are people who are financed. These are activists who are financed by Russia and by other powers that have installed this discourse, this language,” Macron said.

Macron slammed Malian authorities for using the fight against terrorism as a pretext to remain in power.

“The fight against terrorism cannot justify everything. It must not, under the pretext of being an absolute priority, be transformed into an exercise in the indefinite preservation of power,” he said.

The French president paid tribute to Hollande’s “brave decision” to send troops to fight the insurgency led by jihadist groups in 2013 and stressed that the intervention had been indispensable at the time to avoid the country’s “collapse.”

A joint statement published by France and its partners said that “due to multiple obstructions by the Malian transitional authorities, Canada and the European States operating alongside [French] Operation Barkhane and within the Task Force Takuba [a European multinational band of special operations forces] … decided to commence the coordinated withdrawal of their respective military resources dedicated to these operations from Malian territory.”

The coalition will “continue their joint action against terrorism in the Sahel region, including in Niger and in the Gulf of Guinea,” and outline a new strategy for the region by June 2022, it read.

The statement was signed by the European Commission, the European Council, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.S., the U.K., Sweden, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway, Romania, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Signatories on the African side were Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, the Coalition for Sahel, and the Commission of the African Union.

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