France announces a total withdrawal of troops from Mali

The departure is set to upend the international fight against one of the world’s fastest-growing insurgencies, raising questions about who will fill the security void left by Mali’s biggest defense ally.

France, Canada and European and regional states said in the statement that the move follows “multiple obstructions” by Malian authorities, adding that “political, operational and legal conditions are no longer met to effectively continue” military engagement in “the fight against terrorism in Mali.”

The exit will be conducted in a “coordinated manner” with Mali’s army and the UN peacekeeping mission in the country of 21 million, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters Thursday at the Élysée. French bases in Mali are expected to be closed within six months. France has 2,400 troops in Mali.

In all of West Africa, France has about 4,000 soldiers — the most of any single foreign partner — deployed to repel some fighters who have proclaimed loyalty to al-Qaeda and others to the Islamic State.

After the announcement, Col. Souleymane Dembélé, a spokesman for the Malian government, urged Malians to remain optimistic.

Malians will preserve Mali, he told reporters in Bamako, the capital. While the European forces were here, he said, “terrorism engulfed the entire Malian territory.”

The 2011 fall of the Libyan government triggered the trouble in the Sahel, a vast stretch of land south of the Sahara. Mercenaries hired by Moammar Gaddafi returned to their native Mali and pushed to create their own state through a shaky alliance with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The threat has splintered and spread into the territory of formerly peaceful neighbors, primarily Burkina Faso and Niger, killing thousands of West Africans and displacing millions. Researchers estimate that the government has lost access to approximately two-thirds of semiarid Mali, a country about twice the size of Texas.

West and Central African forces have said they lack the money and equipment to stop the bloodshed on their own.

As the security situation worsened, so did public animosity toward leaders — and their Western partners. Protest movements have swelled across the Sahel, calling for presidents to step down and for France to leave. This sparked a chain reaction of military overthrows: Special forces officers topped Mali’s president in August 2020 and again nine months later, pledging to restore safety. Their counterparts in Burkina Faso last month followed suit. (Guinea, largely spared the extremist violence, had its own coup d’etat in September 2021, when officers ousted a leader serving a maligned third term in office.)

West Africa is battling a “coup contagion,” analysts say. World leaders condemned the mutinous uprisings as attacks on villages and army posts increased.

The multinational effort against the Islamist extremists in West Africa began in 2013, when French forces teamed up with regional forces against fighters advancing on the city of Bamako.

Early success unleashed jubilation: Malians draped the French flag over their balconies as they cheered on the French convoys that helped liberate cities across the north, including Timbuktu. But since then, the extremists have regrouped and spread. Word of anti-insurgent victories — the killing of several extremist leaders, for instance — could not offset talk about deadly mistakes. Chief among them: a French airstrike in central Mali last year that killed 19 civilians, according to a UN investigation.

The popularity of the French presence has plummeted. More than 85 percent of Bamako residents in an October survey by the Malian statistician Sidiki Guindo said they were “dissatisfied” with the French operation.

Civil groups have accused French troops of making the security crisis worse, and people wave anti-French signs at regular demonstrations.

Tensions soared after the August 2020 coup. Protesters had marched for weeks, demanding the resignation of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who they called too complacent with the conflict and too close with France. The interim head of state, Col. Assisi Goita, led the sacking of Keïta’s temporary replacement last spring and put himself in charge.

France’s top diplomat called the junta “illegitimate” and “out of control” in late January, accusing Mali of hiring Russian mercenaries. Days later, citing the “hostile” comments, Mali expelled the French ambassador.

“There’s no mutual respect,” said Bourema Kante, 45, who works for a trade logistics company in Bamako. “Just look at what their leaders are saying. It’s troubling — no respect — and terrorism is spreading all over.”

Now West Africa faces a moment of reset. Human rights groups are urging governments to address what drives recruits to extremism: high unemployment, a dearth of basic services outside the big cities, feelings of being left behind. With porous borders and fewer lines of defense in Mali, coastal states—Senegal, Togo and Benin among them—are vulnerable to the scourge.

“You can’t solve all the problems using troops,” said Aanu Adeoye, a Russia-Africa researcher at the Chatham House think tank in London. “There needs to be a sober conversation about the fundamental issues that contribute to this violence.”

The declaration Thursday came the morning after a working dinner at the Élysée palace, where dozens of leaders from Africa, Europe and Canada discussed backsliding democracy and growing violence in the Sahel.

Paris could no longer fight alongside a nation that “neither shares the strategy nor its objectives,” Macron said.

Operation Barkhane — named after the dunes of the Sahara — has also become unpopular in France. A survey from the polling institute IFOP found 51 percent of respondents were against the effort — a nine-point plunge from 2019.

Macron announced last summer that Barkhane would “reorganize” while shrinking by about half over the next year. At its peak of 5,100 soldiers, the force represented 76 percent of France’s defense-mission spending.

The French leader asked Washington and other allies last summer to provide special forces for a European counterterrorism coalition called Takuba, which is now about 800 soldiers strong. That effort is also ending in Mali, the statement said.

European allies have slammed the late December arrival of “hundreds” of Russian mercenaries, which “can only further deteriorate the security situation in West Africa,” France and 14 other Western powers said in a joint statement.

Mali’s rulers have repeatedly denied hiring mercenaries, saying that only Russian trainers — “state-to-state” allies — are working with the nation’s army. (Russian President Vladimir Putin contradicted that statement weeks ago, saying “private” contractors are operating in Mali.)

Russian mercenaries — hired in the Central African Republic, Sudan and other African nations — have a rap sheet of human rights atrocities, according to a panel of UN experts, including mass killings, forced disappearances and sexual assault.

The United States has roughly 1,100 service members in West Africa mainly focused on training and providing logistical and intelligence help. After the military takeover, the State Department halted military aid to Mali. American soldiers mostly operate there in support of the French mission. The fate of their mission is now unclear.

On a video conference this month, Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of the US Africa Command, said Russian mercenaries in Mali are motivated by financial gain — access to the nation’s deep reserves of gold and other minerals.

“And they never leave the situation better than they found it,” he said. “My experience is they will leave it much worse and they will also exploit the country.”

Noack reported from Paris.

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