French officials believed military operations were the only solution to the crisis

French President Emmanuel Macron announced a major reduction of France’s military presence in the Sahel region, where Paris along with international forces have been battling with various militant groups since 2013.

“The time has come: Our commitment in the Sahel will not continue in the same way,” Macron said. “We will undertake a profound transformation of our military presence in the Sahel.”

Around 5000-strong troops are deployed across the Sahel as a part of a French operation headquartered in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.

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French troops have been present in Mali since 2013 when they intervened to force Tuareg militants and Al Qaeda-linked groups from power in towns across the country’s north. Known as Operation Serval, it was later replaced by Operation Barkhane and expanded to include Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania in an effort to help stabilise the broader Sahel region.

“We will make a drawdown in an organised way,” Macron said at the news conference, without giving a timeframe.

The withdrawal

While Macron said France’s existing Operation Barkhane would end, its military presence would remain as a part of the so-called Takuba Task Force.

The drawdown would mean the closure of French bases and the use of special forces who conduct anti-terror operations and provide military training to local armed forces.

The Takuba operation, which according to Macron is to take the lead, currently consists of around 600 European special forces based in Mali, half of whom are French, with 140 Swedes and several dozen forces from Estonia and the Czech Republic.

France in recent years has tried to internationalise and externalise counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel as the financial and political burden has become costly for Paris, which has failed to secure significant contributions from its allies.

Western countries have long considered involvement in the Sahel as a risky move given the ever-growing presence of military groups and their role in arms and people smuggling.

The US contribution to French operations has been limited to intelligence support, while Germany and the UK have shown little-to-no interest in France’s military-prioritised approach to the multi-layered crisis.

On the other hand, the insurgency which initially was born in Northern Mali quickly split into its neighbouring countries across the Sahel due to their weak state structure and poorly-equipped and low-skilled armed forces.

Despite some success, including last year’s killing of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, France has largely failed to contain the insurgency and violence continues to terrorise the locals en masse.

Last weekend, at least 138 men, women and children were killed in northern Burkina Faso, one of the worst civilian massacres since the outbreak of the Sahel conflict. Local sources cite a death toll of about 160 people.

Such mass killings are far from isolated. In January, militants linked to the Islamic State group slaughtered 105 people in two villages in western Niger.

Almost 7,000 people died in the fight last year, according to data by the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project. And two million people have been displaced in the same time period.

Coupled with the failed anti-insurgency efforts, civilian killings have prompted growing anti-French sentiment in the region where many question the presence of their former colonial power.

Last March, a United Nations report detailed French airstrikes that killed 19 civilians at a wedding party in Central Mali. Despite the testimonies of eyewitnesses and confirmation of the killings by local groups, France claimed it struck armed groups.

An investigation by the local news website Sahelien found that French forces have killed at least 43 civilians in six different incidents in Mali since 2018. According to the website, to this day French authorities have only acknowledged three of those civilian deaths and have not paid compensation to any of the victims’ families.

The timing of the military withdrawal announcement is particularly interesting. Macron will try to draw international attention to the Sahel crisis in the G7 meeting this weekend as well as next week’s NATO summit in Brussels.

Military-focused approach

French officials believed military operations were the only solution to the crisis, underestimating the role of social and political factors in the rise of insurgency.

But in the current picture, the Sahel’s insecurity stands as a symptom of a deeper crisis of governance and political instability.

That is, in fact, one of the significant reasons behind the withdrawal.

“The lasting presence of France’s external operations cannot replace the return of the state and state services and political stability,” Macron said, pointing out that despite repeated operations the state has not returned in many areas.

Recently, Mali’s second coup in nine months has been a striking reminder to Paris of the importance of political stability in the fight against militancy.

In April, Chadian President Idriss Deby, an important ally and figure in France’s security apparatus died. His troops were deployed across the Sahel, supporting France which hailed Chadian troops for their success in the fight. Macron, despite his critics, backed the military council which took over the country following Deby’s death.

Last week, France suspended its joint military operations with Malian forces and stopped providing defence advice after the junta in Mali staged another coup and deposed the civilian figures of the transitional government.

Macron denounced the coup and demanded the return of civilian rule and the promise of elections next February to be held. Nevertheless, Colonel Assimi Goita, was sworn in as interim president this week.