In what looks like a loss of will and abdication of responsibility, France’s President Macron announced on February 17 that French troops are being withdrawn from Mali, the former French colony. Leading French newspaper Le Monde commented: “It is an inglorious outcome of an armed intervention that began in euphoria and which ends, nine years later, against a backdrop of crisis between Mali and France.”
Macron’s justification is that relations with the military junta that took over Mali in 2020 have broken down: “We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share.” The junta had gone back on an agreement to organize an election in February, and proposed holding power until 2025.
Macron’s decision has profound implications not only for Mali but for the whole Sahel, the vast band of territory running coast to coast across Africa, just south of the Sahara, home to nearly 100 million people. The zone encompasses areas in a range of countries – just how many is open to dispute – from Senegal and Mauritania in the west, to Sudan and Eritrea in the east. Ever since the defeat of Islamic State (IS) and its caliphate in Syria, the Sahel has become a jihadist hotbed, where the fighters of extremist Islam have been assembling in ever-growing numbers, many under the black flag of IS.
For years three international forces have been trying to stem the advancing tide of Islamist extremism – one under French control, one under the UN, and the third drawn from the governments of the region. Independently and collectively they have failed. A total of 25,000 foreign troops are currently deployed in the Sahel region. They include about 4,300 French soldiers, the UN peacekeeping mission established in 2013, and an EU military training mission that aims to improve the Malian military’s capacity in fighting armed rebels.
The security crisis started in 2012, when an alliance of armed Islamist groups took over northern Mali. France, the former colonial power, stepped in to stop their advance toward the capital, Bamako, which could have resulted in a total collapse of the Malian state. For some time French troops were able to control the situation, but gradually armed jihadist groups began expanding their reach across the region. According to the UN, attacks in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have increased fivefold since 2016.
Many Islamist groups are involved, but the two main ones are the al-Qaeda-linked JNIM (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin), and the IS-affiliated ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara). Despite repeated French airstrikes, both have expanded their reach beyond their strongholds in northern Mali to unleash bloodshed across the region. Accounts of a succession of mass atrocities and ruthless massacres of civilians in Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania make for horrifying reading. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in its account of the violence in the Sahel in 2021, reports that the two main jihadist groups – JNIM and ISGS – also turn on each other, from time to time.
As France’s intervention in Mali began proving ineffective, the deteriorating situation prompted action in a variety of quarters.
In July 2017, France, Germany and the EU announced the launch of the Sahel Alliance. They were joined by a swath of European nations, a number of international banks and the UN Development Program.
In September 2019 leaders of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), in recognition of the terrorist attacks sustained by a number of West African countries, announced a billion-dollar plan to help in the fight against armed groups. The financial aid was expected to run between 2020 and 2024.
A France-Sahel summit in January 2021 ended with leaders agreeing to the creation of a new structure aimed at bringing the two parties’ forces together under a single command. The idea was to facilitate joint operations and improve intelligence-sharing. In support, France announced in early February that it was expanding its 4,500-strong military presence in the region by an additional 600 troops. There have been other initiatives designed to bring the Islamist-inspired terror in the Sahel under control.
All this has been imperiled by Macron’s withdrawal, especially since eight members of his Alliance have decided to follow his lead.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has not refrained from using the chaotic situation in the Sahel to his advantage, especially since European nations are so heavily involved. According to media reports, the rogue Mali government has been using the services of the hugely controversial Russian mercenary group Wagner to shore up its position. As a result Putin has established a foothold in central Africa, and is a prime party in chasing Macron out of what was once clearly a French sphere of influence. None of which augurs well for Franco-Russian relations, the future of Mali or the Sahel region as a whole.
Even though the remaining allies, weakened by France’s withdrawal, have undertaken to continue fighting terrorism in the Sahel region, including in the Gulf of Guinea, there is no doubt that Macron’s withdrawal is seen by the IS as a major victory. The French president has opened the Sahel region to further infiltration by jihadist groups and possible conquest, as in Syria and Iraq, by Islamic State.