France will reduce its military operations in the Sahel to focus more closely on the fight against Islamist terrorism, but will continue to cooperate with the armies of its African and international allies along the southern fringe of the Sahara, Emmanuel Macron, President of France , said Thursday.
Paris has maintained a sizable force in the region, currently over 5,000, since Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande sent troops to Mali to prevent the country from falling to jihadists eight years ago.
Like the Americans who have fought the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Isis in Afghanistan since 2001 and are withdraw now, Macron made it clear that France was not satisfied with the failure of Sahelian governments to effectively administer territory briefly recaptured from the jihadists by military operations.
“It is not the role of France to replace the States of the region forever”, Macron said at a press conference in Paris ahead of the G7 summit of major democracies in the UK this weekend. “The time has come.”
He gave no troop numbers or timetable for the withdrawal of French forces, but said Operation Barkhane would end in its current form and be replaced by a “new cadre” with two pillars: an ongoing campaign by the French and allied special forces against the Islamists. terrorists and cooperation with national armies in the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea.
In February, Macron delayed a previously planned force reduction in the Sahel, but warned he wanted to do so eventually. to avoid “infinite war”.
France’s presence in the region has become increasingly unpopular as its operations extend, sparking anti-French protests in some cities. Many politicians and ordinary citizens remain suspicious of their former colonial power, which maintains a strong cultural, economic, diplomatic and political influence in Africa.
French forces have killed several Islamist leaders in recent years, and many observers argue their presence is essential to preserve what little stability remains in the region. But the violence, including the massacres of civilians by Islamist extremists, gradually spread from from north to central Mali and across borders to Niger and Burkina Faso.
Extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Isis have taken advantage of long-standing communal tensions and filled the void of largely absent governments in the region to take over large swathes of land.
France has been criticized by Sahelian and European diplomats in the region for offering lip service to improving governance while remaining largely focused on the security response – despite widespread recognition that there is no is no military solution to the problems in the Sahel.
Macron again rejected the idea of negotiating with Islamists who killed French soldiers and citizens, although the violence-weary locals were often in favor of such talks.
Despite Macron’s warnings, authorities in Mali and Burkina Faso have already started negotiations and negotiated temporary ceasefires in an area where a man can be a smuggler, a bandit, a member of an ethnic militia or a jihadist, depending on the day and the situation. .
Additional reporting by David Keohane in Paris