France, EU states withdraw military task force

France and its allies in a European force announced on Thursday that they would begin withdrawing troops from Mali after nearly 10 years of fighting an extremist uprising.

A statement signed by France and its African and European allies said that “several obstacles” from the ruling junta meant that the conditions were no longer in place to operate in Mali.

The decision concerns both France’s Barkhane force in the Sahel and the European force Takuba, which Paris had tried to create together with its allies.

“The political, operational and legal conditions are no longer met in order to effectively continue their current military involvement in the fight against terrorism in Mali,” the statement said.

The Allies “therefore decided to begin the coordinated withdrawal of their respective military resources dedicated to these operations from Malian territory.”

The announcement was made when President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Brussels on Thursday for a two-day summit between the EU and the African Union (AU).

France’s military withdrawal from Mali will take four to six months, during which time there will be fewer operations against militants in the Sahel, Macron said on Thursday. “The heart of this military operation will no longer be in Mali but in Niger,” Macron told a news conference.

Macron added that France’s Saber Special Forces would remain stationed in Burkina Faso, where a military junta also holds power.

The deployment in Mali has been fraught with problems for France. Of the 53 soldiers killed in its Barkhane mission in West Africa, 48 died in Mali.

France initially deployed troops against extremists in Mali in 2013, but the uprising was never completely stopped, and now new fears have arisen for an extremist movement to the Gulf of Guinea.

Even after leaving Mali, however, the Allies promised to remain committed to fighting terrorism in other countries, including Niger.

“Nevertheless, they agreed to continue their joint action against terrorism in the Sahel region, including in Niger and the Gulf of Guinea,” the statement said. “They have entered into political and military consultations with them with a view to determining the terms of this Joint Action by June 2022.”

The announcement of the withdrawal came at a critical time for Macron, just days before a long-awaited statement by the president that he will stand for a new term in the April election. It also coincided with Macron’s attempt to take a leading role in international diplomacy as he pressured Russia to de-escalate in the conflict over Ukraine.

Especially when the French election is approaching, Macron’s priority is to ensure that a possible withdrawal does not invite comparisons with the US chaotic departure from Afghanistan last year.

On Wednesday, Macron prepared the ground for the announcement with a dinner that brought together the leaders of France’s key allies in the Sahel region – Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

Officials from Mali and Burkina Faso, who also recently experienced a coup, were not invited to the meeting.

There are a total of 25,000 foreign troops currently deployed in the Sahel region. They include about 4,300 French soldiers, which during a decline announced last year will decrease to about 2,500 in 2023 from a peak of 5,400.

Other forces deployed in Mali are the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, established in 2013, and EUTM Mali, an EU military training mission aimed at improving the Malian military’s capacity to combat terrorists.

About 2,400 French troops have been deployed in Mali as part of the Barkhane operation and the EU’s Takuba force set up in 2020, which was intended to increase in number when the French deployment was reduced.

According to a French source, who asked not to be identified by name, France will also provide MINUSMA and EUTM with flight support and medical back-up for a period after departure. But the withdrawal of Paris could set the stage for other European powers such as Britain or Germany to abandon their roles in the multinational missions.

“The departure of Barkhane and Takuba creates a vacuum,” Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said on Wednesday.

In the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea, “national armies will have to deal with problems in our national territories, and that is our philosophy,” he told TV channels RFI and France 24.

Relations between France and Mali have sunk to new lows after the junta led by strongman Assimi Goita refused to stick to a calendar to return to civilian rule.

The West also accuses Mali of using the services of the hugely controversial Russian mercenary group Wagner to strengthen its position, a move that gives Moscow a new foothold in the region.

“It is a glorious end to an armed intervention that began in euphoria and ends, nine years later, against the background of the crisis between Mali and France,” commented the daily Le Monde.

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