BAMAKO, 10 November 2020 – France says it plans to cut its military presence in the Sahel to make room for a yet-to-be assembled European force.
France has stationed a contingent of more than 5,000 troops as part of the Barkhane force in the Sahel since 2014 to help fight violent extremism.
Critics of France’s foreign policy in the region say France has used these troops to shore up dictators.
Security experts have said the withdrawal is not unrelated to protests, notably in Mali, that have blamed France for a spike in violent extremism and called for French troops to pack up and leave.
In the heat of the protests last summer, French President Emmanuel Macron, promised to restructure the Barkhane force.
Soldiers in this contingent have, since 2014, been assigned to defeat militants of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) which has insurgents in the border regions between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The expectation is that no more than a few hundred troops will be withdrawn – if the plan gets implemented.
Reports have suggested that the European troops will be drawn from the Takuba Task Force which is assisting Mali in the fight against armed groups.
Three countries – Estonia, Czech Republic and Sweden – are among those seen most likely to contribute any future European force.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and defence minister Florence Parly paid visits to Mali in rapid succession to each other.
During his visit to Mali, Le Drian refused to comment on any talk of troop withdrawal.
Violent extremist groups tend to multiply or to rise on the ashes of one group being reportedly crushed.
Even as Barkhane commander General Marc Conruyt says ISGS is now “significantly weakened”, he admits that a hitherto unknown al-Qaeda-affiliated Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) has built up its own strength.
According to Conruyt, GSIM is now “the most dangerous enemy for Mali and the international forces”.
No fewer than 50 French soldiers have been killed in the Sahel since 2013.