The essential Emmanuel Macron announced on Thursday a “profound transformation” of the French military presence in the Sahel and the formation of an international anti-jihadist alliance in the region.
After more than eight years of massive engagement, Emmanuel Macron announced on Thursday a reduction in the French military presence in the Sahel, marked by the closure of bases and a re-articulation of the anti-jihadist struggle for an “international alliance” that unites Europeans. The anticipated but shocking announcement comes when Mali, a key country in the region, witnessed a second coup in less than a year that strained relations between Paris and France and challenged the French presence there.
“We will initiate a profound restructuring of our military presence in the Sahel zone,” said the French President during a press conference with a view of the 5,100 soldiers of the French Barkhane force. This transformation will include “the end of Operation Barkhane as an external operation” and the “implementation of an international alliance with the participation of the states in the region and all of our partners focused solely on the fight against terrorism,” he added.
Specifically, France wants to stop securing large areas in which states cannot assert themselves and is concentrating on the targeted fight against the jihadists. The President gave no figures on the number of staff, but referred to a decline in “influence”, ie the number of French bases in the region.
By 2023, the French workforce is expected to number around 2,500 people, said a source with knowledge of the case. “The number of remaining French soldiers will not be stopped, maybe a few thousand. It will remain a significant presence,” said the Elysee, adding that a departure from northern Mali could be “on the horizon of autumn”.
Paris therefore relies on the “internationalization” of combat support efforts by local, under-equipped and under-qualified forces. The fight against the jihadists will be carried out “with special units around (the European operation) Takuba with an obviously strong French component – with several hundred other soldiers – and African, European and international forces”, Emmanuel Macron also made clear.
Ag Ghaly, priority number one
These announcements are part of the political will of the head of state to reduce the French military presence in the region in the medium term. In February, during a summit meeting in N’Djamena with partners from the G5 Sahel organization, in which five countries in the region (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) took part, postponed this decision in order to put pressure on the military upheld via jihadist groups.
France has achieved tangible successes against the Islamic State in the Great Sahara (EIGS) and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations united in the GSIM (Support Group for Islam and Muslims), but without stopping the jihad spiral.
With the 2022 presidential election approaching, this long-term military effort also raises growing questions in France, while 50 soldiers on the field have been killed since 2013. Iyad Ag Ghaly, head of GSIM, responsible for a large number of attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger now seem to be Barkhane’s primary target.
“Today Iyad Ag Ghaly is clearly the top priority (…) For us it is the person who must absolutely succeed in catching him in the coming months, even neutralizing it if it is not possible to catch him.” the special operations commander General Eric Vidaud underlined on June 3 on the France 24 channel.
No dialogue with the jihadists
The situation has complicated the Mali armed forces in recent weeks with the brutal death of President Idriss Déby in Chad and, in particular, the second coup in nine months in Mali, the central country of Operation Barkhane, which caused Paris to suspend its operations.
The French President regretted that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) “recognized” Colonel Assimi Goita as President of the Transition in Mali following a second coup within nine months.
“The decision that ECOWAS made, six months after denying a military coup leader this right to recognize that right, creates bad case law for the Africans themselves (…) for ECOWAS itself and by setting the precedent that this is for creates many neighbors, “said Emmanuel Macron. He himself has been criticized for supporting the military transition in Chad following the death of Idriss Déby, which many analysts believe set a precedent in the eyes of the Malian coup plotters.
President Macron conditioned the resumption of military operations with the Malian armed forces on “clear” commitments by the transitional authorities not only with regard to the election calendar, but also regarding non-dialogue with the jihadists.
“We must not suffer from ambiguity. We cannot conduct joint operations with powers that decide to discuss with groups who also shoot our children,” he said. “No dialogue and compromise”.