Macron Cautions Against Reducing Sahel Anti-Insurgent Force

President Emmanuel Macron cautioned against a rapid withdrawal of forces fighting Islamist insurgents in the Sahel, ending weeks of speculation that he’s planning to imminently scale back the French presence in the troubled African region.

“Rushing a French withdrawal, which is one of the options I have reviewed, would be a mistake,” Macron said Tuesday after almost two days of talks with the leaders of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso in N’Djamena, Chad, which he joined remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Macron Cautions Against Reducing Sahel Anti-Insurgent Force

The summit follows one in January 2020 in the southern French city of Pau, which resulted in the governments of the region promising to take on more responsibility and France increasing its deployment by 600 soldiers to 5,100.

Macron is under pressure to come up with an exit plan some 14 months before French presidential elections. A recent poll showed voters are increasingly weary of the war that’s in its eighth year and cost France about 911 million euros ($1.1 billion) in 2020, according to the latest public figures, while some Sahelians resent the military presence of a former colonial power.

Nimbler Strategy

France’s presence in the region only makes sense if governments there do more to address local grievances that fuel extremism and “work on political reconciliation,” Macron said. So, while French troops focus on the fight against terrorism, local officials will be able to engage in talks with civilian armed groups ready to lay down their arms and commit to the fight against the extremist groups.

Sahelien countries are expected to reinforce their presence in areas where France has made gains. During the summit, Chad committed to adding 1,200 troops to the tri-border area that links Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, which is plagued by insurgency.

By the summer, progress on these fronts should help the French government decide how to define a new, nimbler strategy, Macron said. He gave no details on what that would look like, speaking only of a “significant evolution,” with France remaining a “pillar” of Takuba -- the task force created after the Pau summit that groups special forces from nine European countries and aims to shore up the French operation, known as Barkhane, as well as Malian forces.

Collective Security

In defending France’s continued presence in the region, Macron repeated previous statements that Barkhane exists for the collective security of the region and the wider world, and that it has significantly weakened local groups affiliated to Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

Macron urged “faster, stronger” progress on efforts to restructure the debts of African countries whose economies have been damaged by the pandemic. And he revived a bid to obtain funding from the United Nations that was blocked by the Trump administration.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a video message to the summit, according to a Macron aide. The U.S. is already providing military support to Barkhane, but France hopes the new administration will do more.

So far, 57 French soldiers have lost their lives in the eight years of fighting. Thousands of civilians have died in the conflict in the arid region south of the Sahara that’s one of the poorest in the world.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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