France and its allies Thursday announced a coordinated military withdrawal from Mali. France sent troops to push occupying militants out of northern Mali in 2013 and has been fighting insurgents alongside Malian troops ever since. Analysts say the withdrawal could have serious implications for security in Mali and across the region.
A statement by France, in conjunction with the French-led European Takuba task force and Canada, cited “multiple obstructions by the Malian transitional authorities.”
It also said, “political, operational, and legal conditions are no longer met” to continue fighting terrorism. Malian officials have not commented on the statement.
The announcement follows increasing tensions between France and Mali. Mali’s interim prime minister, Choguel Kokalla Maiga, has accused France of using its military mission against Islamist militants to divide the African country. He has not provided evidence to back up his claims and France has not responded to the accusations.
French forces arrived in 2013 to take back control of northern Mali from Islamists in Operation Serval, which was later replaced by the anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane.
Malians warmly welcomed the French army’s arrival, but as violence and instability increased in the years since, approval of the French military presence dropped sharply.
On the streets of Bamako, Malians say they are happy to see France leave. Soumanou Koné spoke while on a short break from work as a bank agent. He says that since Barkhane started – since Serval started and transitioned into Barkhane – insecurity has grown in Mali.
Boubacar Salif Traore is a Bamako-based security consultant. Speaking via a messaging app from the capital, he says that although the Malian army is ramping up its efforts and training, managing insecurity on its own will be a challenge.
Traore says the Malian army is in the process of reconstruction and that the troops are ready to advance on the ground. But he notes, the Malian territory is immense — two-and-a-half times the size of France. So, it will be very difficult for the Malian army to face this situation alone, he says. He also says instability in Mali is not just a pressing issue to countries in the Sahel, but to all of West Africa.
Andrew Lebovich is a Sahel analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Speaking from Berlin, he addressed the difficulties ahead in terms of the Malian army’s ability to take on Islamists, including JNIM, an al-Qaida-aligned militant group, and ISGS, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
“There’s been, recently, a Malian military offensive in some places reportedly in conjunction with Russian cooperation. That has had a limited impact for now. There’s been in some areas a return to some calm but at the same time, militants, particularly associated with JNIM but also ISGS, are still present, they are still active, and nothing has really changed on a deeper level.”
France has said that it will continue fighting terrorism in the Sahel. President Emmanuel Macron said during an address from Paris Thursday morning that European forces will be moved to neighboring Niger.
Kars de Bruijne heads the Sahel program at the Netherlands’ Clingendael Institute. He says that fighting insecurity in the Sahel from neighboring countries without cooperating with the Malian authorities will be complicated.
“Wherever you go, if you go to Burkina, Niger, Benin, or Abidjan, you will need to have some sort of a collaboration with the Malians. Because this is not … these are all cross-border conflicts. That’s the big issue, so even if they’re going to go to someplace, how are they going to continue working with the Malian authorities? Because you need to.”
Macron said the military withdrawal could take between four and six months.
France and several other Western governments have expressed concerns about Mali possibly cooperating with Russian mercenaries, something that the Malian government has denied.