French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announce this week that French troops will be withdrawn from Mali and redeployed elsewhere in the Sahel. This announcement isn’t shocking following increasingly poor relations with the country’s military regime after two military coups in the past two years.
But France isn’t alone, Macron is expected to meet with other European Union members on Wednesday and discuss the future of the combined military engagement in Mali, a semi-arid country in the Sahel, the sub-Saharan country that is struggling with an Islamist insurgency. French government officials told the news media that President Macron will make a statement “shortly after” the meeting with EU partners. An announcement about this meeting is expected either late Wednesday or Thursday.
This expected withdrawal from Mali is a major about face for France who has been involved in the insurgency inside its former colony for the past nine years. France has consistently argued that aiding the government in fighting the insurgency was a matter of national security for both France and to Europe as well. But deteriorating relations with a military junta that has conducted two coups since August of 2020 has pushed the tension to the breaking point.
The military junta was supposed to hold new elections in February in 2021, but announced in January that they were suspending elections for five years.
Adding fuel to the fire is that the military coup leaders have embraced Russia as a partner to include the hiring of the Wagner Group, a mercenary proxy force for Moscow who has left a trail of human rights violations in their wake in every country they’ve been involved in. The Mali junta expelled the French ambassador a week ago.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday that, “If the conditions are no longer in place for us to be able to act in Mali – which is clearly the case – we will continue to fight terrorism side-by-side with Sahel countries who want it,” he said indicating that France will redeploy forces elsewhere in the Sahel.
That sentiment was echoed by Germany. German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht told her Malian counterpart Sadio Camara: “If elections are delayed for four or five years, then there is no basis for further German engagement.”
She added that the idea of Malian troops trained by Germans only “to work with Russian mercenaries, is unthinkable.”
A French withdrawal would also mean that the Special Operations Task Force – Takuba would also be withdrawn. France assembled Special Operations troops from across the EU to work by, with, and through local militaries setting up training programs and accompanying troops against insurgents that include forces that are aligned with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Czech and Estonian SOF troops have been actively involved in Takuba and they would likely leave with the French as well.
Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet said on Saturday, “It’s impossible to continue in such conditions.”
Denmark sent a contingent of Special Operations troops to be part of Takuba, but the Mali military junta, claimed that they were not cleared to enter the country and they were forced to leave. The Norwegians who have excellent SOF units, canceled their planned deployment to Takuba. Currently, Takuba has about 900 troops with nearly half of them French.
The insurgency in Mali began with Tuareg separatists but quickly was taken on by the terror groups who preyed upon the factors that created the insurgency in the first place. The French initially pushed the insurgents to the borders of the country in 2013 under still-ongoing Operation Barkhane, but things changed in 2015.
The insurgents, with the assistance from the terror groups, regrouped and rearmed and began spreading the fight to Mali’s neighbors, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania, nations that comprise the G5 Sahel. Over the weekend, French troops killed 40 jihadists in Burkina Faso who were thought to be responsible for several three recent bombings that took place in neighboring Benin that killed nine civilians, including a French nation.
The French withdrawal will also mean that Mali will be losing the valuable air support that it has come to depend upon, creating a security gap. A gap that the Russians are in-equipped to fill. The EU leaders will meet and discuss how they will redeploy their forces to the surrounding countries to stem the flow of Islamist insurgents.
Spain, who has the largest contingent of troops involved in the European Union Training Mission (EUTM), as well as the in the 14,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA), is concerned with the long-term implications of withdrawing. Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares, said, “Spain will make its voice heard at the EU. We believe the reasons that brought us to Mali are still there – instability, jihadism,” he said.
“It is desirable for us to maintain a mission.”
Authored by Steve Balestrieri