France is expected to officially announce in a few days a gradual withdrawal of its military forces in Mali after nearly a decade, following months of diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
This departure will mark the end of a difficult nine-year mission in Mali which, according to the French governments, is an integral part of regional security as well as the prevention of jihadist threats in Europe.
Yet over the course of the mission, popular support in the Sahel for the withdrawal of France’s Barkhane military force, alongside smaller deployments from other countries, gradually increased and the planned reduction in the presence of 5,000 troops French in the region, about half of which is in Mali, had already been announced last year.
Relations between French and Malian military leaders, aimed at restoring ties with the former colonial ruler, have also suffered a bitter rift.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced on Monday that a full troop withdrawal from Mali was imminent. “If the conditions are no longer met for us to be able to act in Mali, which is clearly the case, we will continue to fight terrorism alongside the countries of the Sahel that wish to do so,” he said. The official announcement is expected at a two-day summit between the EU and the African Union in Brussels from Thursday.
A French withdrawal could trigger a new departure of the European military forces that make up the “Takuba taskforce”, according to documents seen by Reuters, suggesting that France would “begin the coordinated withdrawal of its military resources from Malian territory”.
A European diplomat also told the news agency that it was “no longer a question of whether they leave, but what happens with the troops, what happens with the peacekeeping force peace of the United Nations and what is happening with the missions of the European Union”.
Successive coups in Mali, first in 2020 when President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was deposed and then last year when the interim government took office, have upended the historically close ties between successive Malian governments. and France.
The military regime of Colonel Assimi Goïta, who led both coups, has been subject to sanctions by regional leaders in West Africa and the EU, drawing widespread criticism for not not having agreed to a rapid transition to a democratic regime. Military leaders have announced their intention to return power to a civilian government by 2026.
The growing presence of Russian mercenary forces belonging to the Wagner Group has also fueled tensions with France.
In Mali, as well as in Burkina Faso and Niger, popular resistance to the presence of French forces led to major anti-French demonstrations, drawing several thousand people to the Malian capital, Bamako.
While the French military has played an important role in the counterterrorism effort in the region, including training and supporting Malian forces, alleged abuses by French troops have sparked anger.
An airstrike on the village of Bounti by French forces in January 2021 killed 19 people and three gunmen at a wedding, according to the UN and local community groups. Still, France disputed the findings, insisting it was targeting terrorists.
According to Oxford Analytica analyst Nathaniel Powell, France’s military mission in the Sahel has had mixed results and its broader defense objectives have suffered.
“France’s overall security policy in the Sahel has been a massive failure and Barkhane is one of the reasons. There have been tactical successes but [an] overall foreign policy failure,” he said.
Support for unpopular governments in Mali and the West African region, some of which have suffered military coups in recent years, has further undermined efforts to improve security and stability, he added. while French opposition to any negotiations between governments and jihadist groups has also fueled popular anger in France.
“Even if the negotiations don’t have a significant chance of success, it sent the message that France was an obstacle to solving this problem and the feeling that France is preventing governments from doing what they want to do. “
Last year, President Emmanuel Macron reiterated that negotiations with terrorist groups to end the crisis would not be tolerated by France. “We cannot carry out joint operations with powers that decide to discuss with groups that, at the same time, are shooting at our children. No dialogue and no compromise,” he said last June. Yet support for negotiations between some regional governments has persisted.
A condition negotiated by the JNIM, a network of terrorist groups in the region, was the withdrawal of foreign forces. The eventual exit of French forces may provide a greater opportunity for negotiations to take place.
However, according to a diplomat from the region, France should not immediately withdraw its forces from Mali, allowing time for diplomatic tensions between the two countries to subside. “You could see a situation in a few months, when things may have calmed down, that France feels they can slow down this withdrawal if things improve.”