France and allies to begin withdrawal from Mali

A French Foreign Legion vehicle patrols during counterterrorism operations in northeastern Mali. (Photo: NYTimes)
France and several of its Western allies said Thursday that they would begin a “coordinated withdrawal” of military forces from Mali, capping months of an increasingly bitter breakdown in relations with the country’s ruling junta and throwing into uncertainty regional anti-terrorism operations spearheaded by French armed forces.اضافة اعلان

Jihadi groups have spread across Mali, in West Africa, and to the country’s neighbors, even as a coalition of Western and African militaries has tried to fight them, but France, its European partners and Canada have nevertheless “taken the decision to withdraw their military presence in Mali,” the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said Thursday.

The accelerated pullout, a far quicker and bumpier withdrawal than France had anticipated, could give ground to terrorist groups, which have grown in numbers and reach over the past decade, killing thousands of civilians and displacing millions. It also raises questions about the use of a military-first approach in a complex crisis with deep social roots.

The withdrawal comes amid a spiraling diplomatic crisis. France accused Mali of employing the services of a controversial Russian paramilitary company, the Wagner group, and railed against the junta that came to power in 2020, saying it was “out of control.” Mali, which denies hosting Russian mercenaries, accused France of abandoning it in the fight against jihadis, and expelled the French ambassador.

Finally, France pulled the plug, accusing Mali of obstructing its operations.

At a news conference, Macron expressed frustration with the Malian junta and said that the breakdown in relations had prompted France and its allies to rethink their strategy and reorganize their forces.

France sent troops into Mali, a landlocked former French colony, in 2013 to beat back armed Islamists who had taken over its northern cities. Mali, which has longstanding ties to France and a large immigrant population there, had requested the intervention.

But after successfully routing extremists from the cities, France decided to stay on, and the scope of its mission mushroomed. Over 4,000 French soldiers are currently deployed across the Sahel, a wide strip of land that cuts across Africa just below the Sahara. Most of them are in Mali, where there is also a 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force.

“We cannot remain militarily engaged with de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden objectives we do not share,” Macron said at the news conference, which came after a dinner Wednesday evening with the French leader and Western and African counterparts, and ahead of a summit between European Union and African Union leaders in Brussels.

France’s hasty retreat will likely be hailed as a major victory by the jihadi groups: the withdrawal of foreign forces is one of its two main demands, along with a transformation of society and politics in line with a particular interpretation of Shariah law.

But it could also be welcomed by the junta, which has capitalized on growing anti-France sentiment by the Malian public, which holds France partly responsible for worsening security and corruption among the political elites that the military overthrew.

“They may be saying that they’re choosing to leave, but really from the Malian perspective, they’re being kicked out,” said Hannah Armstrong, an independent analyst focused on the Sahel region.

Macron said that three military bases in Mali would be shuttered over the next four to six months, in coordination with Malian forces.

While he said that France and its allies were still discussing how their forces would be redeployed, he suggested that there would be a pivot to neighboring Niger and a bigger focus on countries in the Gulf of Guinea, as well as on programs to help civilian populations before military operations become necessary.

“The expectations of our partners have changed,” Macron said. “The sensibility of public opinion in countries of the region has also changed.”

Amadou Albert Maïga, the parliamentary secretary for Mali’s National Transition Council — a temporary legislative body set up by the junta — said the withdrawal announcement was “predictable given the diplomatic tensions between our two countries,” amid a growing feeling among the population that France wanted to interfere in Malian affairs.

“We exchanged with France, a brethren country, but unfortunately French authorities did not understand,” he said.

Beginning in Mali in 2012, terrorist groups across the Sahel took up arms against their governments, taking advantage of existing grievances held by marginalized communities, recruiting young men with few prospects and cowing villages in rural areas into submission.

Groups in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso attack armies who are ill trained or poorly equipped to maintain security in the vast tracts of land that comprise the sand-swept region, and whose own abuses often make things worse. The jihadis also attack civilians; massacres have become a regular occurrence.

When France sent troops into Mali, the soldiers received an ecstatic welcome. Their campaign was supposed to last only a few weeks.

Nearly 10 years later, thousands of French soldiers are still there, housed in sprawling air-conditioned bases, operating aircraft including drones, and traversing the scrub in state-of-the-art armored cars. They are searching for insurgent groups armed with assault rifles and moving on motorcycles whose members have proved stubbornly elusive despite the stream of jihadi leaders that France reports it has killed.

The military coalition, led by France and Mali but including other West African and European armies, too, had long been failing to stem the tide, and worsening security was one of the factors that led to Mali’s coup in August 2020. As its counterterrorism mission in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane, was prolonged, the popularity of the French-led intervention plummeted.

“Ten years into this crisis, it’s pretty clear that everybody’s Sahel strategy has failed lamentably,” said Ornella Moderan, the head of the Sahel Program of the Institute for Security Studies.

France announced in June that it would begin to draw down its troops fighting under Barkhane, which receives operational support from the United States.

But even as Barkhane wound down, a European task force spearheaded by the French, called Takuba, prepared to begin. Takuba brought together Special Forces from several European nations to take part in the fight against jihadis in the region — a burden that Macron had been keen to share with Western allies as French public opinion increasingly questioned France’s purpose in the region.

Now even Takuba’s future is uncertain: Macron said that some of that operation’s forces would be repositioned in Niger, but under what name or with what mandate was unclear.

The Western countries said in a statement that they remained “committed to supporting Mali and its people in their efforts to achieve sustainable peace and stability” but that the country’s new leaders were responsible for “multiple obstructions” and that the current conditions meant that they could no longer contribute to the fight against terrorism there.

The statement added that the countries would continue their coordinated action against terrorism in the broader region, with new terms to be established by June.

In light of the withdrawal, it appeared that Mali’s military partnerships would now shrink to those with other African countries and with Russia.

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