President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday announced a major drawdown of France’s military presence in the Sahel where forces have been battling jihadist insurgents for nearly a decade.
At a news conference, Macron said 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 a 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 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.
Macron has failed to secure significant contributions from larger European allies.
Macron said the French drawdown had been decided because the “longstanding presence of France… cannot be a substitute for political stability”.
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, insurgents have continued to carry out deadly attacks.
The anti-insurgency effort has cost the lives of 50 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 jihadist 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 insurgents 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.
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.
He also comdemned 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 neigbours, said Macron.