Analysis: Leaving Mali would not be easy as the French army feels the heat

  • Relations between France and Mali have deteriorated
  • The French army can withdraw its troops, but does not know where
  • Paris determined to maintain campaign against activists
  • Meanwhile, Russian-linked mercenaries entered the region
  • Macron faces tough choices ahead of election

PARIS, Feb 10 (Reuters) – France is considering withdrawing its troops from Mali, but adapting its strategy to prevent Islamist militancy from spreading south could prove complex and contribute to uncertainty in the region.

Relations between Paris and the Bamako junta have soured since it announced it would abandon some bases in the north of its former colony, reduce staff and focus on hunting down jihadist leaders in the region.

Facing the heat after rejecting elections scheduled for this year, the junta accused France of treason, dividing the country and espionage, and even branded France’s foreign legion mercenaries.

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All the while, he was looking to Russia and Russian-linked mercenaries for help.

In January, the famous French Takuba mission, made up of European special forces to accompany Malian troops, was upset when a Danish contingent was ordered to leave the country.

France’s envoy to Bamako was also expelled after a war of words broke out between the two sides.

With anger running high, some French officials have hinted they may have no choice but to pull out of Mali altogether, even if the broader fight against Islamist extremists in the Sahel continues.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that a decision on “adapting” the forces would be taken within weeks. He did not use the word “withdrawal”.

Leaving Mali, the epicenter for years of the militant threat, could have serious consequences, emboldening insurgents who already control large swaths of territory and further fueling migration from West Africa to Europe.

It also threatens France’s strategic economic partners such as Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal.

Diplomats and officials stressed that despite the political stalemate, French and European troops were still functioning and coordinating well together.

On February 8, the French military presented details of a joint operation involving a French fighter jet, the Takuba force and the Malian army that led to the deaths of 30 suspected Islamist militants. Read more

“To leave completely would be a mistake. We cannot talk about security in the Sahel without focusing on Mali,” said a senior European diplomat, urging Paris not to rush its decision.

WHERE TO GO?

It’s a tough call for French President Emmanuel Macron, who is set to be re-elected in a few weeks and wants to underscore his leadership qualities.

France had already reduced its troops in the Sahel with the aim of reducing the number of troops from around 5,000 to 2,500-3,000 by 2023. About half of its forces are based in Mali, so Paris would have to decide where to place them. and maintain operational efficiency.

One possible destination is Niger, where Paris already operates fighter jets and drones. The French army minister traveled to Niamey in early February to discuss the evolution of the French military presence in the Sahel.

But Nigerien officials have balked in recent months at the idea of ​​bringing in additional foreign forces.

And if the anti-French feeling is less intense in Niger than in neighboring Mali, it does exist. A French military convoy was blocked late last year, with French troops firing gunfire and warplanes launching flares to warn civilians blockading the convoy.

A senior counter-terrorism source in Niger did not rule out a French presence, but said there were national considerations to keep in mind, especially after recent military coups. in Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali.

Burkina Faso also appears difficult.

French special forces operate outside the country, but a January coup destabilized the country. Public animosity towards France is evident and the junta has shown no willingness to increase cooperation in the short term.

A withdrawal from Mali would take several months anyway. This could leave the door open for talks, especially if the junta were to reconsider its electoral timetable.

If French troops leave, however, it would raise questions about the security of the 14,000-strong defensive UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA.

“A LA CARTE” STRENGTH?

A version of the existing European Takuba task force could be a solution.

The mission includes 14 countries, mainly from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Its field force – around 600 to 900 – includes medical and logistical teams and has been more of a token force accompanying local troops.

While some Europeans worry about the political crisis in Mali and the presence of Russia and mercenaries, diplomats say there is no desire to leave Paris alone, especially in the context of the crisis on the borders of Ukraine which has left the former states of the Eastern bloc on the alert. their shoulder.

French officials believe the Takuba force could be adapted through an “à la carte” system whereby countries in the Sahel and beyond could call on European states for expertise, training or support. equipment.

Rather than having thousands of troops deployed separately from local forces, they would have a low profile presence to guide them.

“It is not up to us to defend the population. It is up to the national armies to do it. From now on, we will accompany them. Our new axis of cooperation is to make the African armies more autonomous”, declared a senior military official French.

A senior Ivorian defense officer agreed, adding that talks were underway with France as it sought to adapt its counterterrorism operation in the region.

The focus is on how operations can be tailored to support Gulf of Guinea countries, including Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin and Ghana, where there are fears militancy is spreading due to porous borders, according to French officials.

Gulf of Guinea countries have experienced sporadic attacks and created the Accra Initiative, a collaboration to prevent any direct spillover from the Sahel. Reinforcing it with European support is seen by some as a possibility.

But not everyone is convinced. A European diplomat underlined the sensitivity of welcoming foreign troops, adding that they could not simply be moved around like chess pieces.

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Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan, Allegresse Sasse in Cotonou and Michel Rose in Paris; Editing by Bate Felix and Mike Collett-White

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