7th Dec 2023

Macron pledges troops in Niger after Mali exodus

  • French president Emmanuel Macron is fighting for re-election in April (Photo: Élysé
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Thousands of French soldiers fighting jihadists in Mali will soon be coming home — raising fresh doubts about European military resolve amid heightened tensions with Russia.

Some 2,400 French soldiers in the so-called Barkhane mission and 600 troops from a mix of EU countries in the so-called Takuba operation in Mali will pack up their bases and fly out over the next six months, French president Emmanuel Macron announced Thursday morning (17 February).

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Barkhane and Takuba are the combat wings of a wider international presence. UN-helmeted peacekeepers and EU military trainers were to stay in Mali for the time being.

The French president took pains to depict the exodus from Mali as a carefully choreographed tactical manoeuvre — and he said French and EU special forces will be back to fight jihadists in the region out of bases in Niger and Nigeria in a new "Africano-European disposition," though he did not give details when that would take place.

Macron made the announcement in the Élysée palace in Paris flanked by the presidents of Ghana and Senegal and by EU Council head Charles Michel.

The new "disposition" was enshrined in a joint communiqué signed by more than 20 European and African states.

"The heart of the operation will now move to Niger, to the trois frontières region, and to Nigeria," Macron said.

"Thank you for your continued engagement," said Macky Sall, who is the Senegalese president and the current president of the African Union.

Macron explained that Mali had made it impossible to stay after its nationalist junta turned against France and hired hundreds of Russian mercenaries — ostensibly to fight jihadist insurgents more effectively.

"It's a failure after being humiliated," far-right presidential challenger Marine Le Pen said Thursday, in a sign of how the pull-out from Mali, despite its careful preparation by Macron, is already being used against him ahead of French elections in April.

In the long run, however, regrouping forces might make French efforts in the Sahel region more effective, said Paul Melly, an Africa specialist from British think-tank Chatham House.

The French strategy so far had not been "enough to prevent the generalised spread of militant violence across large parts of a huge region with deep poverty and under pressure from climate change and rapid population growth," Melly told EUobserver.

The pullout also comes against the background of a growing wariness about the deployments of European troops and amid increasing pressure from insurgencies on missions like the one in Mali.

"European leaders, European officials, they're accountable to their constituencies at home," Elissa Jobson, the director for global advocacy at the International Crisis Group, told the EU Scream podcast.

Leaders "want to know that the money that is being spent in Africa and elsewhere is having results," said Jobson, adding that, "there's got to be limits to that" since European leaders also "don't want to see soldiers coming back in body bags."

Another complication in Mali is the involvement of the Russian Wagner Group of mercenaries.

Asked by one journalist if Mali represented "another victory" for Russian president Vladimir Putin, Macron did not answer directly.

But Macron said Putin had assured him when they met in Moscow last week that he was not behind Wagner Group and that there was no bilateral Mali-Russia military arrangement.

Even so, the deepening involvement of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group in combating the insurgencies in Africa has alarmed many observers.

"There is a risk that a private company like Wagner, which has been implicated in human rights violations elsewhere could exacerbate instability further," said Cat Evans, a former UK ambassador to Mali and the director of Brussels-based non-profit advisory group Independent Diplomat.

As for the effectiveness of the Wagner in supporting the Malian junta, Melly, of Chatham House, said the mercenaries would not have the US air, satellite, and intelligence support that France and EU states had relied on.

"Bands of jihadists, travelling rapidly by motorbike, and subsisting on few resources are able to strike suddenly at local communities, army and gendarmerie posts, unpredictably and almost at will," said Melly.

Macron warned that Wagner and other mercenary groups in Mali had "predatory intentions" toward the mineral-rich country, but he added that the Malian authorities were free to decide who they hired as their security partners.

Evans, the former UK ambassador to Mali, also cautioned against making parallels with the rout of Western forces from Afghanistan last year.

"In Afghanistan, you had an approaching force ready to take Kabul," she said. "You don't have the same situation in Mali."

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