Emmanuel Macron has signaled his intention to reduce within a few months the 5,100 French soldiers fighting jihadists in the Sahelian states of sub-Saharan Africa after years of military operations.
The French president told the Elysee Palace that he would wait a few months after the mid-February summit between France and regional governments in the Chadian capital N’Djamena to see the results of France’s African allies in the fight against terrorism and the restoration of order in their own countries.
“Otherwise, I will in any case be forced to rotate our French contingent,” he said Friday. “Because if you want to have a useful impact, you have to think that if there are still terrorist groups after seven years, it means that they are integrated and that your problem is not just a security problem. It is a political, ethnic and development issue. So at that point, I’ll adjust our quota.
The French have justified their presence as a means of helping to prevent Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe. But keeping an eye on his chances of re-election next year amid growing disenchantment with France over the results of Operation Barkhane, Mr. Macron has repeatedly expressed his frustration with the ambivalent attitude towards Paris. of some Sahelian governments.
Like the Americans in Afghanistan after 2001, the French struggled to suppress militant Islamist groups after the initial military success. French forces defeated an Islamist offensive that captured the north Mali in 2013, but conflicts have since continued to spread in a region where political and military leaders are frequently accused of corruption and incompetence. Central Mali has become the epicenter of violence, with ethnic militias and jihadist groups exploiting a lack of governance.
“Either you intervene very quickly and solve the problem in six months, or you get bogged down,” said Serge Michailof, development expert and researcher at Iris, the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations. “There are too many problems for a foreign intervention force not to become an occupying force.”
France reinforced its forces in the Sahel by 600 troops barely a year ago and claimed recent successes in its operations against the Islamic State of the Great Sahara, the local branch of Isis, in the “tri-border region. »From Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Mr Macron said France would now focus on confronting Isis and suggested other conflicts would be left to the governments of the region – those of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. whose leaders are to meet in N’Djamena in two weeks. at the top of the G5.
“Our enemy cannot be all more or less jihadist groups,” Macron said. “It is the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara.”
While France brags about killing some key jihadist leaders, the UN estimates that more than 2 million people have been internally displaced in the region and that jihadist attacks have increased fivefold since 2016, according to the International Crisis Group. Violence has paralyzed Burkina Faso, once a model of regional stability, where large swathes of the country are no longer governed. The region is now regularly subjected to attacks from militants like that in Niger last month which killed more than 100 people.
Amid growing anti-French sentiment in the region, there have been public protests against what critics claim to be a neocolonial campaign. The French presence was complicated last month by an airstrike in central Mali that residents say killed 19 members of a wedding party. France and the Malian government have both insisted that the January 3 attack killed around 30 terrorists.
France’s international stabilization strategy for the Sahel is “sinking” in part because it relies too much on a military response, according to an ICG report released on Monday. There is “no convincing success in the Sahel, but rather a regular deepening and expansion of its conflicts,” according to the report. “Many of France’s partners, and even some within the French system itself, are increasingly skeptical of a stabilization strategy that has burned vast resources with meager results.
Most armies in the Sahel are under-equipped and underfunded, and many analysts – and senior politicians – warn that a French withdrawal could worsen the security situation.