Paris: France announced Thursday that it was withdrawing troops from Mali due to a breakdown in relations with the country’s ruling junta, after nearly 10 years of fighting a militant insurgency.
The Mali deployment has been fraught with problems for France - of 53 French soldiers killed serving in West Africa’s Sahel region, 48 of them died in Mali.
“Multiple obstructions” by the military junta that took power in August 2020 meant that the conditions were no longer in place to operate in Mali, said a statement signed by France and its African and European allies.
The decision applies to both 2,400 French troops in Mali, where France first deployed in 2013, and a smaller European force of several hundred soldiers, called Takuba, that was created in 2020 with the aim of taking the burden off the French forces.
“We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share,” President Emmanuel Macron told a news conference, saying that he “completely” rejected the idea that France had failed in the country.
Macron said that France’s bases in Gossi, Menaka and Gao in Mali would close within the next four to six months.
But, he vowed, the withdrawal would be carried out in an “orderly” manner.
The announcement comes at a critical time for Macron, just days before the president is expected to make a long-awaited declaration that he will stand for a second term at elections in April.
Macron’s priority will now be to ensure that the withdrawal does not invite comparisons with the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan last year.
France initially deployed the troops against the militants at Mali’s request in 2013.
But the insurgency was never fully quelled.
Militants scattered by French firepower regrouped, and two years later moved into the centre of Mali, an ethnic powderkeg, before launching raids on neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Now, new fears have emerged of a jihadist push toward the Gulf of Guinea.
‘Collapse of state’
“It is an inglorious end to an armed intervention that began in euphoria and which ends, nine years later, against a backdrop of crisis between Mali and France,” wrote French daily Le Monde.
Macron denied that the intervention had been in vain.
“What would have happened in 2013 if France had not chosen to intervene? You would for sure have had the collapse of the Malian state,” he said, hailing the decision of his predecessor Francois Hollande to deploy troops.
Even after the pullout from Mali, however, France and its allies vowed to remain engaged in fighting terror in the region, including in Niger and the Gulf of Guinea, adding that the outline of this action would be made clear in June.
Speaking alongside Macron, Senegalese President Macky Sall said fighting “terrorism in the Sahel cannot be the business of African countries alone.”
Macron warned that Al Qaida and the Daesh group had made the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea nations “a priority for their strategy of expansion.”
Macron announced that Takuba forces in Mali would be redeployed alongside Niger forces close to the Mali border.
Around 25,000 foreign troops are currently deployed in the Sahel.
They include around 4,600 French soldiers, though France last year had already announced the start of a drawdown.
Army chief of staff spokesman Colonel Pascal Ianni said the Mali withdrawal would mean that within six months there would be 2,500 to 3,000 French soldiers deployed across the region. At its peak, there were 5,400 troops in the mission, known as Barkhane.
In Mali specifically, there is also the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, established in 2013, and EUTM Mali, an EU military training mission for the Malian army.
Macron said France would still provide air and medical support for MINUSMA in the coming months before transferring these responsibilities.
Olivier Salgado, the spokesman for MINUSMA, told AFP that France’s pullout was “bound to impact” the mission and the UN would “take the necessary steps to adapt.”
In Berlin, German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said she was “very sceptical” that the country’s mission in the EUTM could continue in the light of the French decision.
Relations between France and Mali plunged after the junta led by strongman Assimi Goita refused to stick to a calendar to a return to civilian rule.
The West also accuses Mali of using the services of the hugely controversial Russian mercenary group Wagner to shore up its position, a move that gives Moscow a new foothold in the region.
Macron accused Wagner of sending more than 800 fighters to the country for the sake of its own “business interests” and shoring up the junta.
British Defence Minister Ben Wallace said London would discuss with its allies the future of the British presence in the UN force, acknowledging that Wagner was “effectively in bed with the junta that is now running Mali.”