The French military has withdrawn soldiers from its base in Timbuktu, Mali, turning over the base to the Malian military as they wind down their deployment after nine years. French troops first deployed to Mali after Islamic insurgents began taking large chunks of territory in 2013. 

Timbuktu is where then-French President Francois Hollande announced that French troops would aid its former colony in February 2013. But now, the questions remain whether the Malian military is strong enough to fend off the Islamic insurgency as the insurgents are now tied to powerful international terror groups from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. After the French initially pushed them back to the edges of Malian territory, the insurgency has regrouped and grown stronger. 

French forces present the symbolic key to Malian forces to the base in Timbuktu. AFP photo

General Etienne du Peyroux, the commander of France’s Operation Barkhane military campaign in Mali, offered the new Malian commander a symbolic large wooden key as a French military plane made a low flyover. The French flag was lowered and replaced by Mali’s, signifying the changeover.

France “will be present in a different way,” said du Peyroux. “This is ultimately the aim of Operation Barkhane: To allow Mali to take its destiny into its own hands … but always in partnership.”

In a released statement, the French Defense Ministry said that the Malian military inherits “a strong garrison in Timbuktu,” in addition to nearly 2,200 UN peacekeepers who are permanently deployed there.

The insurgency in Mali began with Tuareg separatists in 2012, but that insurgency was hijacked by Islamic terror groups looking to spread their influence as they were being systematically pushed out of their self-styled “caliphate in the Middle East. 

Northern Mali in the sub-Saharan, semi-arid Sahel region has been beset by violence which has since spread to neighboring Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania. The French have already withdrawn from its northern Mali bases in Kidal and Tessalit but will continue to maintain its presence in Gao along the volatile border region.

France announced earlier this year that they would withdraw about 2,000 of the 5,100 troops they have deployed in Operation Barkhane by 2022. They plan to refocus their efforts on strengthening the host nation’s military and continue to train, advise, and assist the regional forces. The hope is that the Special Operations Taskforce Takuba manned by several European allies and led by the French will replace the efforts of the French forces being withdrawn. 

Special Operations troops assigned to the Takuba task force. AP photo

The junta also increased tensions with the French government by claiming that France had abandoned Mali and signed agreements with Russia for military equipment and support. Tensions grew even more so as the proposed agreement was with the shadowy Russian mercenary company, the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group is known to act as a proxy Russian government force.

However, the French government has grown increasingly frustrated by the military junta running Mali now. Led by Colonel Assimi Goita, the military has carried out two coups in less than a year’s time before being sworn in as the country’s interim president. The promised deadline for new democratic elections to be held by the end of February will likely not happen.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional bloc, threatened further sanctions against Mali on Sunday if “more concrete progress” is not made by January 1 in preparing for democratic elections. 

The military junta has stated that the increasing instability in the country is why the elections can not be carried out.