“Today, at 1:00 p.m. (Paris time), the last detachment of the Barkhane force present on Malian soil crossed the border between Mali and Niger. It came from the Gao desert operational platform, transferred to the Malian armed forces since this morning”, announced the staff of the armies, welcoming that this “major military logistical challenge” has been “taken up in good order and in safety”.
This withdrawal, ordered on February 17 by President Emmanuel Macron, puts an end to nearly a decade of French military intervention in Mali, probably the last commitment of this magnitude for a long time.
The Head of State hailed in a press release the commitment of French soldiers “who, for nine years, have fought armed terrorist groups” in the Sahel and 59 of whom have “paid the price with their lives”.
“Their sacrifice obliges us and reminds us that our soldiers have, during these years, preserved the unity of Mali, prevented the establishment of a territorial caliphate and fought against the terrorist groups which strike the local populations and threaten Europe”, underlines Mr. Macron.
Their effectiveness “during all these years and until the last few days has been demonstrated by the neutralization of most of the highest officials in the hierarchy of Sahelian terrorist groups”, he adds.
– “Less exposed” –
In an implicit criticism of the Malian authorities resulting from two coups d’etat, he reaffirms his will to “pursue this commitment alongside all the States which choose the fight against terrorism and respect for stability and coexistence between communities” in West Africa.
Operation Serval, launched in January 2013 against the jihadist groups who had conquered the north of the country and threatened to descend on Bamako, the capital, was succeeded in August 2014 by Barkhane, targeting the jihadists scattered in the countries of the Sahelo-Saharan strip. , which mobilized up to 5,500 men in the field in 2020.
This military presence in the Sahel will be halved by the end of the year, to around 2,500 soldiers. Niger has accepted the maintenance of an air base in Niamey and the support of 250 soldiers for its military operations on the Malian border.
Chad will continue to host a French hold in N’Djamena and France hopes to retain a contingent of special forces in Ouagadougou, the Burkinabè capital. Paris is discussing with other West African countries to offer its support, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea.
But French military interventions will evolve towards “less posed and less exposed devices”, said Emmanuel Macron on July 13.
This is in particular to avoid the crystallization among the populations of hostility against the former colonial power, fueled by the persistence of insecurity and stoked according to Paris by deliberate disinformation campaigns on social networks.
This withdrawal concludes nearly a year of increasingly bitter relations between Paris and the colonels in power in Bamako since the putsch against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020.
– “neo-colonial posture” –
The colonels, who turned to Russia — even going so far as to secure the services of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, according to Paris and the UN — broke defense agreements with Paris and its European partners in May , after filibustering for months against Barkhane.
Bamako, which denies having appealed to Wagner, reproached the French president in July for a “neo-colonial posture”, according to the expression of the government spokesman, Colonel Abdoulaye Maïga, accusing him of stirring up ethnic hatreds by his criticisms of the Malian army.
He was reacting to remarks by Mr. Macron for whom “the choices made by the Malian junta today and its de facto complicity with the Wagner militia are particularly ineffective in the fight against terrorism, that is no longer their objective. “.
In Mali, France found itself caught, according to the experts, between a political logic which dictated that it leave as quickly as possible, and a logic of military efficiency which, on the contrary, encouraged it to stay until the local armies can take over.
“We now know, from Afghanistan, that an external operation with a lot of Western forces on the ground cannot last forever”, explained to AFP a few months ago Alain Antil, specialist in the Sahel at the Institute. French for International Relations (Ifri), emphasizing “the limits” of “big operations, with a lot of men, a lot of presence on the ground and a lot of political visibility”.
“If tomorrow we switch to systems (with) more combat support for certain battalions of national armies, special forces work, air support, France’s political exposure will be much less, with an efficiency that will always be there,” he said.