PARIS – As it pays tribute to its soldiers killed in Mali on Thursday and faces questions over a deadly airstrike, France plans to change its military strategy against Islamic extremists in Africa’s Sahel region – and a possible partial withdrawal of its troops.
President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announce a timetable for the evolution of France’s largest international military operation at a summit in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, next month.
Thursday afternoon, an elaborate ceremony will take place on the Alexandre III bridge in central Paris to pay tribute to two soldiers killed in Mali by an improvised explosive device which struck their armored vehicle on Saturday. Three other French soldiers died five days earlier in similar circumstances.
France’s operation in Mali is also clouded by unclear circumstances surrounding an airstrike that killed at least 20 people in a village where witnesses said Islamic extremists clashed at a wedding party. The French military said those killed were members of an “armed terrorist group” unrelated to a marriage.
French troops have been present in Mali since 2013 when they intervened to force Islamic extremist rebels out of power. The operation, called Barkhane, was later expanded to include Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania to improve security and stability in the wider Sahel region.
Defense Minister Florence Parly said France would “very likely” reduce its 5,100 troops in the Sahel region, in an interview with Le Parisien earlier this week. No specific figure has been released.
Attitudes towards the French mission are mixed.
“The French troops could not stay forever… so much and (with) such mixed results. In a way, this is a good thing, because it will push each country to take more responsibilities ”and to collaborate better, declared Chrysogone Zougmore, president of the Burkinabé Movement for Human Rights, a group of the civil society in Burkina Faso.
The discussion, however, comes amid some signs that Islamic extremist violence is on the decline: last weekend, militants launched attacks on two villages in Niger near its border with Mali, killing at least 100 people.
Siaka Coulibaly, an analyst at the Burkinabé Center for Monitoring Public Policies by Citizens, warned of a “serious deterioration in security” if the French leave, because African armies are not ready to fill the void. “We fear the worst for the countries of the Sahel if foreign troops ever leave,” he said.
Next month’s N’Djamena summit is expected to reassess the situation a year after a meeting in the French city of Pau led France to send 600 more troops and focus military efforts along the porous border separating Mali , Niger and Burkina Faso.
Parly stressed that “any reinforcement, by definition, is temporary”. French troops in 2020 “achieved significant success, neutralizing several senior leaders of terrorist groups and attacking their logistics network to disrupt them,” she added.
Last June, Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of the North Africa branch of al-Qaida, was killed in Mali by French forces who had been tracking him in the Sahel for years. AQIM appointed a new chef in November.
A senior official in the French presidency said that the death of French soldiers would not in itself be the basis for a change in strategy. Speaking anonymously in accordance with the usual practices of the presidency, he added that future strategic decisions will be based on the results of the previous year and on the demands of the Sahel countries.
Newly elected President Joe Biden’s intentions regarding US troops in Africa will also be a key factor in determining France’s next steps.
In December, the Chief of Staff of the French Army, General François Lecointre, told Le Monde newspaper during a visit to Mali that he aimed to “limit” the number of soldiers there ” as quickly as possible”. He said France would not withdraw from the Sahel but would rather “evolve” its operation.
France is also pushing to strengthen a regional force of five countries launched in 2017 with the support of the United Nations, the African Union and the European Union. But the so-called G5 Sahel has been slow to strengthen and still lacks equipment and training.
The French military operation enjoys wide support in his country. But some voices are calling for an exit plan.
The far left party France Insoumise (rebel France), which has 17 lawmakers in the National Assembly, urged the government this week to “publicly present its strategy to allow our soldiers to return without prejudice to the stability of the region. “.
“Today, the stalemate is clear, our soldiers are dying, the government is only acting in reaction and the objectives it pursues are more uncertain than ever,” the group of lawmakers said in a statement.
Sam Mednick in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso contributed.
Sylvie Corbet, The Associated Press