French President Emmanuel Macron announced Friday that France will close three military bases in the Sahel region of northern Mali by 2022 and withdraw about half of the troops from the country. This is part of the reconfiguration of its military engagement in Africa as the Islamist jihadist threat moves farther south. 

France has been heavily involved in the Sahel for the past eight years through Operation Barkhane. It helps its former colony fight al-Qaeda- and Islamic State-linked jihadist insurgencies in the semi-arid region Sahel region. 

Macron made the announcements during a news conference with Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum at the end of a G5 Sahel summit in Paris. The other leaders of the G5 Sahel attended the conference virtually. 

“Our enemies have abandoned their territorial ambitions in favor of spreading their threat not only across the Sahel but across all of West Africa,” Macron said after the video summit.

As Terrorist Threats Change, France Is Adjusting its Approach in the Sahel
French troops during Operation Barkhane in Mali. (File photo)

“Unfortunately this offensive implies increased pressure on all the Gulf of Guinea countries, which is already a reality,” he addded.

“We are going to reorganize ourselves in line with this need to stop this spread to the south, and it will lead to a reduction of our military footprint in the north,” Macron said.

France Will Remain a Player in the Sahel Despite Drawdown

However, France will remain a long-term partner for the G5 countries, Macron insisted. He specified that between 2,500 to 3,000 of the current 5.100 troops will remain in the region.

“But in no way are we going to take over the responsibilities and sovereignty of nations in the region, to fulfill their missions for restoring security and government services to their populations,” Macron specified.

The reorganization of France in the Sahel will begin in late 2021 and be completed by 2022 with the close of three bases in the Kidal, Tessalit, and Timbuktu regions of Mali.

Macron also admitted that there is now a level of distrust and concern between Paris and some of the governments of the G5, especially Mali

The Malian political situation is fluid as the military deposed the president in a coup last August. A transitional government headed by Colonel Assimi Goita, is still in place despite assurances to the contrary. Goita had promised elections in 18 months. Macron was incensed and suspended joint military operations with Mali troops for a month.

The French President has also been dealing with more distrust in Chad. Interim Chadian leader Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno gave assurances this week of a democratic transition after the killing of his father, President Deby, in April. Itno seized power by right of succession which is against Chad’s constitution.

Despite misgivings on the political situation in the two countries, Macron says France remains committed to the anti-jihadist front. 

“Even though I denounced these two coups… We remained militarily committed because it’s important for Malians and everyone in the region,” Macron specified.

France has special operations troops stationed in the Sahel.
French SOF troops as part of Special Operations Task Force – Takuba in the Sahel.

Home-front Problems

Macron has faced criticism in France over the long-term deployment of troops in the Sahel region given the worsening security situation. But as Nigerien President Bazoum said, the problem isn’t with the French, but with the failure of the individual G5 militaries, governmental corruption, and lack of local control and public services.

France to End Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, Will Retain Smaller Force

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“I’m head of state and I can tell. We are not seeing results because, at the moment, it is mostly our armies that have not been up to the task,” Bazoum said during the joint press conference with Macron.

“Five thousand French troops in Mali will not fix the problems in Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, or elsewhere. That is clear, and we must understand that” he added. Bazoum said that Niger will repatriate 130,000 people that were displaced in the fighting against the jihadists in neighboring Nigeria. 

France will remain committed to the Sahel by targeting senior al-Qaeda and ISIS leadership and beefing up the military capabilities of the G5 forces with training, equipment, and advising. 

There are plans to fold the remaining 2,500-3,000 troops into Special Operations Task Force Takuba. Currently, Takuba has 600 troops from France, Estonia, Czech Republic, Italy, the U.K., and Sweden. Its mission has been primarily an advisory one but it will probably transition to a counter-terrorism role.