Sahel: Macron announces end of Operation Barkhane as it exists

The French president says the continuation of military commitment in the Sahel ‘will not be in the same way’, with details to be announced by end of June.

President Emmanuel Macron has said France’s military operation in the violence-hit Sahel region of West Africa will no longer exist in its current form, adding that it will be replaced by another mission of French troops that will further rely on other partners.

“The time has come; the continuation of our commitment in the Sahel will not be in the same way,” Macron told a wide-ranging news conference on Thursday, describing a “profound transformation” of his country’s military presence in the region.

France currently has about 5,100 soldiers deployed across the semi-arid strip on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert as part of its Operation Barkhane, whose headquarters are in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.

“We will make a drawdown in an organised way,” Macron said, adding that details, including on the number of soldiers France is keeping in the region, will be finalised by the end of June.

“We will have to hold a dialogue with our African and European partners. We will keep a counterterrorism pillar with special forces with several hundred forces … and there will be a second pillar that will be cooperation, and which we will reinforce.”

The announcement came after Macron in February – during a virtual summit with the leaders of the so-called G5 Sahel countries Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – had expressed his intention to reduce within months French troop numbers.

The conflict in the western portion of the Sahel largely between state forces and armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda has ravaged much of the region over the past decade, sparking a significant humanitarian crisis.

Almost 7,000 people died due to the worsening fighting last year, according to data by the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project. In late January, the United Nations warned the “unrelenting violence” had internally displaced more than two million people, up from 490,000 at the start of 2019.

Last year, the French government had boosted its Barkhane troop numbers by 600.

Reports citing military and diplomatic sources had indicated that an “adjustment” in the French presence would depend on the involvement of other European countries in the Takuba Task Force fighting armed groups in the Sahel alongside the Malian and Nigerien armies. Those forces have ramped up in recent months.

At the February summit, the leaders of the G5 countries had warned Macron against the dangers of a rapid pullout. Since then, the veteran leader of Chad and close French ally, Idriss Deby Itno, has been killed, while Mali has suffered a second coup that has badly strained relations with Paris.

Last week, France suspended its joint military operations with Malian forces and stopped providing defence advice because Mali’s new military government failed to give guarantees to hold free elections.

Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said the timing of the announcement was significant, pointing to the recent coup in Mali and a meeting next week of NATO allies in Brussels, as well as the upcoming French election.

“Operation Barkhane and its presence in the Sahel has become increasingly unpopular in France,” she said. “More than 50 [French] soldiers have died since 2013 and therefore there’s no doubt that Emmanuel Macron is very aware that the French public opinion is turning against it.”

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