No 'immediate' reduction of France's Sahel force, says Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron speaking at a meeting of the leaders of the G5 Sahel group via video conference on Tuesday, 16 February, 2021, in Paris.
French President Emmanuel Macron speaking at a meeting of the leaders of the G5 Sahel group via video conference on Tuesday, 16 February, 2021, in Paris. © Francois Mori, AFP

France has no immediate plans to adjust its military presence in Africa's Sahel region, and any changes will depend on other countries contributing troops, President Emmanuel Macron told a news conference on Tuesday after a summit on the region. 

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Speaking after a virtual summit of G5 Sahel countries, Macron added there was an increased willingness from other European countries to take part in the Takuba military force in Sahel.

"Significant changes will undoubtedly be made to our military system in the Sahel in due course, but they will not take place immediately," Macron said.

"It would be paradoxical to weaken our deployment at a time when we have a political and military alignment that enables us to reach our goals," he said.

FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor Marc Perelman said that Macron’s announcement to maintain French troop numbers marks a change in strategy, given that last month he spoke of possibly “adjusting” France’s military presence.

“Leaders [in the Sahel] absolutely did not want a troop withdrawal because the situation is still fragile in the region,” Perelman said.

But the debate in France continues to revolve around whether French military intervention in the Sahel can be sustained.

Searching for an exit strategy

“Questions keep being asked ‘is this our battle’, ‘Is this our Afghanistan’, Perelman said, alluding to the risk of a longer drawn out military commitment. 

France, the region's former colonial power, is searching for an exit strategy after years of military intervention against Islamist militants. Its counter-insurgency operation in the Sahel has cost billions and seen 55 French soldiers killed, yet violence is persisting with signs it is spreading to coastal West Africa.

Macron also urged the so-called G5 Sahel countries to expand their own anti-terror fight and work on restoring government control and services in areas where jihadist fighters are operating.

The virtual meeting comes a year after France boosted its Sahel deployment by 600 to 5,100 troops as it sought to wrest back control in the brutal, long-running battle.

The move precipitated a string of apparent military successes. French forces killed the leader of the notorious al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, as well as a military chief of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).

However, jihadists remain in control of vast swathes of territory and attacks are unrelenting.

Just hours before the summit opened, Malian sources said two troops had been killed by a highway bomb in central Mali.

The deaths bring the number of Malian, UN and French troop losses to 29 since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally.

Islamist fighters in the Sahel first emerged in northern Mali in 2012, during a rebellion by ethnic Tuareg separatists that was later overtaken by the jihadists.

France intervened to rout the insurgents, but the jihadists scattered, taking their campaign into the ethnic powder keg of central Mali and then into Burkina Faso and Niger. 

The crushing toll has fuelled perceptions that the jihadists cannot be defeated by military means alone.

Jean-Hervé Jezequel, Sahel director for the International Crisis Group think tank, told AFP that conventional military engagement had failed to deliver a knockout blow.

The jihadists "are capable of turning their backs, bypassing the system, and continuing", he said.

To lighten the load, France is hoping for more military support from its European partners through the Takuba Task Force that assists Mali in its fight against jihadists.

The Sahel armies, for their part, have been unable to pick up the slack.

In 2017, the five countries initiated a planned 5,000-strong pooled force, but it remains hobbled by lack of funds, poor equipment and inadequate training. 

While acknowledging the alliance's weak points, Chad's Déby on Monday "urged all member states to get on with making the joint G5 Sahel force self-sufficient, by giving it its own financial and logistical resources".

Paris also hopes last year's successes can strengthen political reform in the Sahel states, where weak governance has fuelled frustration and instability.

"The socio-economic situation in our countries isn't gleaming ... we're appealing urgently to all our partners to give us the additional resources they promised," Déby said, underlining "debt cancellation" as a priority for regional governments.

France has tried to lean on its EU allies to commit more troops to the region. But Germany on Tuesday rejected France’s requests to send more soldiers.

"Germany is participating with many troops in both international missions in Sahel, in (the European training mission) EUTM as well as (the UN mission) Minusma," Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

"At the moment, we don't intend to engage in other missions beyond that but rather focus on what we are doing already," he added.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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