Emmanuel Macron has signalled he intends to reduce within months the 5,100-strong French military force fighting jihadis in the Sahel states of sub-Saharan Africa after years of military operations.
The French president said at the Elysée Palace that he would wait a couple of months after the mid-February summit between France and regional governments in the Chadian capital N’Djamena to see results from France’s African allies in fighting terrorism and helping to restore order in their own countries.
“If not, I will in any case be forced to pivot our French contingent,” he said on Friday. “Because if you want to make a useful impact, you have to think that if there are still terrorist groups after seven years, that means they are embedded and your problem is not simply one of security. It’s a political, ethnic and development problem. So at that point, I will adjust our contingent.”
The French have justified their presence as a way of helping to prevent Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe. But with an eye on his re-election chances next year amid growing French disenchantment with the toll taken by the country’s Operation Barkhane, Mr Macron has repeatedly expressed frustration with the ambivalent attitude towards Paris of some Sahelian governments.
Like the Americans in Afghanistan after 2001, the French have struggled to suppress militant Islamist groups following initial military success. French forces defeated an Islamist offensive that captured northern Mali in 2013, but conflicts have since continued to spread across a region where political and military leaders are frequently accused of corruption and incompetence. Central Mali has become the epicentre of violence, with ethnic militias and jihadist groups exploiting a lack of governance.
“Either you intervene very quickly and fix the problem in six months, or you get bogged down,” said Serge Michailof, a development expert and researcher with Iris, the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations. “There are too many problems for a foreign intervention force not to become an occupation force.”
France boosted its forces in the Sahel by 600 soldiers only a year ago and has claimed recent successes in its operations against Islamic State of the Great Sahara, the local Isis affiliate, in the “tri-border” region of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Mr Macron said France would now focus on confronting Isis and he suggested other conflicts would be left to the governments of the region — those of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad whose leaders are due to meet in N’Djamena in two weeks at the so called G5 summit.
“Our enemy can’t be every group that is more or less jihadist,” Mr Macron said. “It’s Islamic State of the Great Sahara.”
While France has boasted of killing some key jihadi leaders, the UN estimates that over 2m people have been internally displaced in the region and jihadist attacks have increased fivefold since 2016, according to the International Crisis Group. The violence has crippled Burkina Faso, once a model of regional stability, where large swaths of the country are now ungoverned. The region is now routinely subject to militant attacks like one in Niger last month that killed more than 100 people.
Amid rising anti-French sentiment in the region, there have been public demonstrations against what critics argue is a neocolonial campaign. The French presence was complicated further last month by an air strike in central Mali which locals have said killed 19 members of a wedding party. France and Mali's government have both insisted that the January 3 strike killed roughly 30 terrorists.
The international Sahel stabilisation strategy, led by France, is “foundering” in part because it overly relies on a military response, according to an ICG report released on Monday. There “is no convincing success story in the Sahel, but rather a steady 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 sceptical about a stabilisation strategy that has burnt through vast resources with meagre results.”
Most of the armies in the Sahel are underequipped and underfunded, and many analysts — and senior politicians — warn that a French withdrawal could cause the security situation to deteriorate further.