“If we withdraw from Mali”, “if the President decided to announce the end of Operation Barkhane”, “if we imagined a scenario in which we had to leave the Gao area”… These days, the French army’s top brass discusses the idea of withdrawing from Mali in the conditional tense.
Although they refuse to publicly anticipate the Élysée Palace’s announcements – which Estonia’s defence minister did on 14 February – the French military is willing to subtly admit that Operation Barkhane in Mali is over. France’s President Emmanuel Macron made this announcement on the morning of 17 February.
Although relations between Paris and Bamako have been tense for weeks, Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign affairs minister, has been mentally preparing the population. The latest statement was made on 14 February on France 5 TV: “The authorities in Mali today are a junta made up of five colonels who have taken power [and] say that they want to keep it for another five years. Why should we cooperate with this type of junta? […] It is difficult to continue in these types of conditions,” he said, without explicitly mentioning a military withdrawal.
Within the corridors of Paris’ Ministry of Defence, there is no longer any doubt. For several weeks now, the French army staff (EMA) has been working on the withdrawal options. “The environment created by the junta in recent months means that a partnership is no longer an option,” says a senior officer.
Repositioning in Niger
So, how will the largest French external operation, which has been present in Mali for nearly a decade, come to an end? The past few weeks have been full of speculation on this subject: Should they withdraw ground troops and only maintain air support? Redeploy the force to Burkina Faso, Niger or Chad? Or focus on coastal countries such as Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire or Benin?
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Regarding this first aspect, “the partnership with the Malian armed forces (Famas) will come to an end as soon as there are no more French soldiers in Mali,” replied our military source, brushing aside any possibility of maintaining air support to the Malian armed forces’ field operations. As for possibly redeploying 2,500 men still present in Mali, as well as their military equipment, “there will be no communicating vessel,” said the EMA. “It is not a question of moving [the] elements posted in Mali to Niger or elsewhere.”
Niamey, which Macron announced would be considered a privileged ally in the progressive reconfiguration of Operation Barkhane in June 2021, is not expected to see its role change. The French army will maintain a projected air base there and its desert logistics battle group, which ensures in particular the transport of equipment and supplies, as is already the case today. Even if French personnel in Niamey are reinforced, “it would not be significant,” according to staff.
Protecting the coast
Despite the fact that Florence Parly, France’s minister of the armed forces, visited Niger at the beginning of February, it is not simply a question of substituting Niamey for Gao, where the French troops were concentrated after leaving the holdings of Tessalit, Kidal and Timbuktu. Even though the French authorities have reiterated their desire to “continue the war against terrorism in the Sahel.”
One of the options being considered is strengthening support for coastal countries in West Africa that wish to participate in this war, as they are no longer being spared by jihadist incursions. “It is a question of asking these countries what they need and providing a response according to their needs,” said the Ministry of the Armed Forces following the visit of General Thierry Burkhard, the French Army Chief of Staff (Cema), on 7 February.
Between six months to a year
In addition to the geographical arrangements, everything has been planned, while bearing in mind the time needed for the French soldiers to pack up. Three weeks, six months, a year… Observers put forward all possible scenarios. “You don’t disengage 2,500 men and all their equipment in two or three weeks,” said a senior military officer.
READ MORE Mali: Why is France taking troops out?
Thus, the departure, which will take place by air and land, should take between six months to a year, according to our information. A margin has been provided to cope with climatic conditions, which can hamper convoys by road, especially during the winter season (the rainy season lasts from July to October).
Although the subject of disengagement – which is favoured by a majority of the French political class and public opinion – has already been mentioned during the French presidential campaign, it will extend well beyond the election, the first round of which is scheduled for April 2022.
Withdrawing French troops will have consequences for many other actors involved in Mali. First of all, the European Union (EU), which is involved in training Malian armies with the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) and in the European Union Capacity Building Mission in Niger (EUCAP), as well as sending civilian missions to support local security forces.
“Ending Barkhane would greatly complicate the European mission in Mali, which relies in particular on French air support and its dissuasive effect on certain armed terrorist groups […]. Our presence [after the] French disengagement is under consideration,” said a source within the EU, who said that no consensus had yet been reached among the 27 countries.
Now that France has made its announcement, eyes may well turn towards the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (UNMISMA). The future of several contingents of peacekeepers already seems to be hanging on the French announcement.
Beyond the simple military aspect, many observers wonder what lies in store for the Franco-Malian relationship. On the one hand, some hope that the end of Operation Barkhane will mark a turning point and reopen dialogue. On the other hand, there are those who are already predicting a “change of scapegoat”, as they fear that Minusma will become the receptacle of criticism that – until now – has mostly been aimed at the French soldiers involved in Barkhane.
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