The differences with the Malian junta and the arrival of Russian mercenaries force the march
MADRID, Feb. 17 (Royals Blue) –
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced this Thursday what was already an open secret, that France is withdrawing all its troops deployed in Mali in the framework of the ‘Barkhane’ operation and also of the ‘Takuba’ force of which they form also part other European countries and Canada. With this, it ends its largest operation abroad and the longest since Algeria.
The operation began on January 11, 2013, first under the name ‘Serval’, at the request of the Malian authorities who saw how the jihadist groups were advancing inexorably towards Bamako after having ‘hijacked’ the Tuareg rebellion that had begun a few months earlier in the northern Mali.
On February 2, 2013, the then French president, François Hollande, triumphantly proclaimed from Bamako: “We have won this war.” “Terrorism has been repelled, it has been persecuted but it has not yet been defeated,” stressed the president in prescient words in light of what happened later, assuring that France was on the side of the Malians not out of interest but so that they would live ” in peace and democracy”.
In 2014, ‘Serval’ became ‘Barkhane’, encompassing not only Mali, where the bulk of the Gallic contingent has continued to be -some 2,400 at present-, but also all the G5 Sahel countries (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso).
However, the French anti-terrorist operation has not obtained the desired result in these years since the jihadists, in particular the current branch of Al Qaeda in the Sahel, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), have continued to advance since north of Mali to other regions and have also extended their tentacles to neighboring Burkina Faso, now the most affected country, and to the west of Niger.
The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the subsidiary for the Sahel, is also present in this equation, active above all in the triple border area between these countries, mainly in Burkina Faso and Niger. In addition, in the last year the threat has spread to the border areas of the Gulf of Guinea countries, particularly the Ivory Coast and Benin, and to a lesser extent Togo.
Aware of this new reality, in January 2020, at the Pau summit together with the leaders of the G5 Sahel, Macron announced a reinforcement of ‘Barkhane’, increasing the contingent to more than 5,000 troops and designating as enemy ‘number 1’ ISGS and its leader, Adnan Abu Walid al Saharawi, killed in a bombing last summer.
The leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Drukdel, also killed in a French bombing in June 2020, and other leaders of both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as hundreds of his followers, have also suffered the same fate. fighters.
COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP WITH BAMAKO
However, despite these successes, the relationship with the Bamako authorities has soured over the years, and there has also been a growing anti-French sentiment among the population. The August 2020 coup against Ibrahim Boubakar Keita was a turning point that the military junta’s self-coup last May only aggravated.
In this context, Macron announced last June the reorganization of ‘Barkhane’, with the idea of reducing the presence of French troops in Mali and strengthening the ‘Takuba’ force, made up of special forces from France and other European countries as well as from Canada. Within the framework of this plan, the French Government has proceeded to close in recent months the bases in Tessalit, Kidal and Timbuktu, in the north of Mali.
The French decision fell like a jug of cold water in Bamako and unleashed a crossroads of reproaches. The Malian Prime Minister, Choguel Kokalla Maiga, accused France of having abandoned Mali “in mid-flight”, to which Macron replied by criticizing the legitimacy of the military junta.
Added to this was a new element of confrontation: Bamako’s plans to hire Russian mercenaries from the Wagner firm, known for its abuses in other countries such as the Central African Republic (CAR). After the initial denial, the Malian Transitional Government confirmed its interest and defended that it was within its rights to seek help for his safety elsewhere.
Paris made it clear from the outset that the deployment of Russian mercenaries was a ‘red line’. “It is absolutely inconceivable with our presence,” warned French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Mobilized by France, the EU imposed sanctions on Wagner in mid-November, but that did not dissuade the Malian authorities from their plans, since at the end of December Paris and 15 other countries – including Spain – condemned in a joint statement “the deployment of mercenaries in Malian territory”.
Bamako responded to this accusation, assuring that the only thing on its territory were Russian military trainers, although, after weeks of denying the greatest, Russian President Vladimir Putin ended up confirming a few days ago, in the presence of of Macron, that there are Russian mercenaries in Mali. According to French estimates, there would already be about 1,000.
The decision to withdraw the troops from Mali has also been accelerated by the expulsion of the French ambassador from Bamako on January 31. France announced that it was going to analyze the continuity of its presence together with its partners in ‘Takuba’, many of whom also expressed their desire not to continue in the country, including Denmark, which was forced to withdraw its contingent after that Bamako denounced that it did not have the pertinent authorization.
A COORDINATED RETREAT
The withdrawal is now official and, as France and its allies have clarified, it will be done in a “coordinated” manner with the countries of the region, but also with the EU and the UN, since the departure of the French troops will have an impact on the presence of the European training mission, EUTM Mali, and also of MINUSMA.
However, despite the fact that the marked objective of ending terrorism has not been met and the 53 casualties registered in these nine years -48 in Mali-, Macron has flatly ruled out speaking of failure. Had France not intervened in 2013, he defended, “the Malian state would have collapsed” or even “the seizure of control of the integrity of the territory by terrorist groups” would have taken place.
The French president has also made it clear that Mali’s departure does not mean that France will not continue fighting jihadism in the Sahel. Thus, he has clarified that the French troops in Burkina Faso will remain and will “rearticulate” with the forces of Niger, where French forces also have “the African-European device”.
The joint statement explains that “at the request of its African partners and on the basis of discussions on future modalities of joint action, it has been agreed to maintain joint action against terrorism in the Sahel region, especially in Niger and the Gulf of Guinea”. To that end, there will be talks to determine “the parameters of this action” before June 2022.