Five French soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs in Mali in the past 10 days, bringing the number of soldiers killed across the Sahel to 50 since France launched a campaign to rid northern Mali of jihadists in January 2013.
Among the latest victims was Sergeant Yvonne Huynh, the first female soldier killed since the start of the French intervention.
His death on Saturday, claimed by a group linked to al-Qaeda, coincided with a massacre across the border in western Niger, where unidentified gunmen killed around 100 villagers in one of the worst atrocities in the region.
The deaths – and disputed claims Tuesday by villagers in central Mali that up to 20 wedding guests were killed in an airstrike – have clouded recent successes highlighted by the 5,100-member French counterterrorism force Barkhane and his troops. African partners.
– Change of mood of the public –
Over the past year, the French have killed the leader of the infamous al-Qaeda within the Islamic Maghreb group, Abdelmalek Droukdel, as well as one of the military leaders of the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM) affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Anxious to avoid getting bogged down in a long conflict in Afghanistan, Paris is preparing to announce a withdrawal of the 600 additional soldiers it deployed in the Sahel last year.
But whether the withdrawal signals the beginning of the end of France’s mission in the Sahel is not yet clear.
Defense sources told AFP that President Emmanuel Macron would like to go further in reducing the number of French troops in the Sahel region before the next presidential election in April / May 2022.
“So far, the French have not really questioned the role of France in the Sahel. But you have to be very careful. Public opinion can change very quickly, ”a government source told AFP.
– Win time –
A sign that the Sahel mission could become national political football, some opposition politicians have already started to question the wisdom of staying the course.
“War in Mali: for how long? The far left party France Unbowed questioned Monday.
“The more we help Mali, the more it collapses,” said Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos of the French Institute for Research for Development (IRD).
He spoke of a military coup in August that echoed a coup in 2012, a year before the arrival of the French.
“The longer we stay, the more difficult it will be to leave,” said Pérouse de Montclos, adding: “Beyond the (French) death toll, the real question is how to withdraw without losing face. ”
But for Michael Shurkin, senior political scientist at US defense think tank Rand Corporation, “it was never going to be quick.”
Citing long-standing governance issues in the region, he said: “All France can do is buy time and create space for its African partners to do what they should be doing.”
– ISIS against Al Qaeda –
GSIM’s growing assertiveness over Qaeda, meanwhile, could thwart phasing out plans.
France had identified the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara Group as the number one threat to the region, but its efforts to prevent the defeated ISIS in Syria from regrouping in the Sahel had the effect of strengthening its rival.
“Today, he (the GSIM) is Mali’s worst enemy,” admitted General Marc Conruyt, commander of Barkhane, in November.
France has high hopes for a new elite European force, Takuba, set up to support Malian combat troops following repeated calls from Paris for better burden sharing by its EU partners.
Over the past year, Barkhane has also stepped up cooperation with a regional force of five countries, the G5 Sahel, which France hopes will ultimately assume regional security.
But the G5 Sahel remains ill-trained and underfunded – it chronically lacks air power, surveillance and intelligence gathering.
In an interview with Radio France Internationale (RFI) in early December, the commander of the G5 Sahel admitted that the force was still dependent on France “to compensate for the shortcomings of our national forces”.
“For us, as a joint force, it would be premature to consider (a reduction of Barkhane) and risky for the G5 Sahel,” warned General Oumarou Namata Gazama.
Defense Minister Florence Parly, in an interview with Le Parisien this week, recalled that the French forces were “not destined to stay forever” in the Sahel.
She insisted, however, on the fact that they would stay “as long as necessary” for the nations of the Sahel “to be able to respond to the (jihadist) threat themselves, which they are starting to do”.