France announced on Thursday that it was withdrawing troops from Mali due to a breakdown in relations with the ruling junta, after nearly 10 years of fighting a jihadist insurgency. The Mali deployment has been fraught with problems for France. Of the country’s 53 soldiers killed serving in West Africa, 48 of them died in Mali. “Multiple obstructions" by the ruling junta meant that the conditions were no longer in place to operate in Mali, said a statement signed by France and its African and European allies. The decision applies to both 2,400 French troops in Mali, where France first deployed in 2013, and a smaller European force of several hundred which was created in 2020 with the aim of taking the burden off the French forces.
“We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de-facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share," President Emmanuel Macron told a news conference, saying that he “completely" rejected the idea that France had failed in the country.
Macron said that French bases in Gossi, Menaka and Gao in Mali would close but vowed that the withdrawal would be carried out in an “orderly" manner.
The announcement of the withdrawal comes at a critical time for Macron, just days before the president is expected to make a long-awaited declaration that he will stand for a second term at elections in April.
Macron’s priority will now be to ensure that the withdrawal does not invite comparisons with the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan last year.
France initially deployed troops against jihadists in Mali in 2013 but the insurgency was never fully quelled, and now new fears have emerged of a jihadist push to the Gulf of Guinea.
‘COLLAPSE OF STATE’
“It is an inglorious end to an armed intervention that began in euphoria and which ends, nine years later, against a backdrop of crisis between Mali and France," wrote the Le Monde daily.
Macron denied that the intervention had been in vain.
“What would have happened in 2013 if France had not chosen to intervene? You would for sure have had the collapse of the Malian state," said Macron, hailing the decision of his predecessor Francois Hollande to order troops in.
Even after the pull-out from Mali, however, the allies vowed to remain engaged in fighting terror in other countries including Niger.
“They agreed nonetheless to continue their joint action against terrorism in the Sahel region, including in Niger and in the Gulf of Guinea," their statement said, adding that the outline of this action would be made clear in June.
Speaking alongside Macron, Senegalese President Macky Sall said fighting “terrorism in the Sahel cannot be the business of African countries alone."
Macron warned that Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group have made the Sahel region of West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea nations “a priority for their strategy of expansion."
Macron on Wednesday prepared the ground for the announcement with a dinner bringing together the leaders of France’s key allies in the Sahel region — Chad, Mauritania and Niger.
Around 25,000 foreign troops are currently deployed in the Sahel region of West Africa.
They include around 4,300 French soldiers, which under a reduction announced last year are due to fall to around 2,500 in 2023 from a peak of 5,400.
In Mali specifically, there is also the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA established in 2013 and the EUTM Mali, an EU military training mission that aims to improve the Malian military’s capacity in fighting terrorists.
Macron said after the departure, France will still provide support for MINUSMA, without giving details.
But Paris’ withdrawal could set the stage for other European powers like Britain or Germany to abandon their roles in the multinational missions.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said Wednesday that the departure “creates a void".
In the Sahel and Gulf of Guinea, “national armies will have to deal with problems on our national territories, and that’s our philosophy", he told broadcasters RFI and France 24.
Relations between France and Mali plunged to new lows after the junta led by strongman Assimi Goita refused to stick to a calendar to a return to civilian rule.
The West also accuses Mali of using the services of the hugely controversial Russian mercenary group Wagner to shore up its position, a move that gives Moscow a new foothold in the region.
Macron accused Wagner of sending more than 800 fighters to the country for the sake of its own “business interests" and shoring up the junta.
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