The French President, Emmanuel Macron, announced last week that France will withdraw its military forces from Mali after more than nine years battling a jihadist insurgency. French Governments have long argued that the intervention into the Sahel was integral to national security and preventing the rise of radical extremism in the region.
French troops were deployed to the landlocked country in 2013 in an attempt to stop a violent jihadist insurgency that began in 2012 and eventually spread to neighbouring countries. While French and Malian forces were initially successful, returning Timbuktu to Malian Government control, insurgent groups have recovered over time and local support for the presence of France’s military force has decreased. While the withdrawal of French forces has been foreshadowed for some time, the complete withdrawal of all troops has been seen by some as a strategic failure that will do nothing to help in the battle against violent insurgent groups in the Sahel.
This comes after tensions have risen between the French and Malian Governments, particularly since the military coup in August 2020, where the French-supported former President, Ibrahim Keita, was overthrown after his government failed to stop the insurgency. The French military have also been criticized, with United Nations investigators accusing French forces of killing over 19 civilians during an air raid in central Mali in 2021. In the meantime, the insurgency has gotten stronger and wider in scope, with thousands of soldiers and civilians killed over the past decade and 2 million people displaced. The Malian Government has since invited Russian forces and mercenaries into the country to replace the French and European forces, raising questions about the future stability of the region in the absence of Western European support.
During the announcement, President Macron advised that French troops would remain in the region, but instead be based in neighbouring Niger, where they can assist other countries also battling jihadist insurgencies. Macron said “the heart of this military operation will no longer be in Mali but in Niger… and perhaps in a more balanced way across all the countries of the region which want this help.” The French newspaper, Le Monde, was more critical of the withdrawal and reported “it is an inglorious end to an armed intervention that began in euphoria and which ends, nine years later, against a backdrop of crisis between Mali and France.”
While the French withdrawal is an undoubtedly disappointing end to a well-meaning intervention to stabilize the region and protect innocent civilians, the fact that 18,000 UN peacekeepers will remain in Mali is welcome. Islamic extremism in the region has exacerbated existing problems, such as widespread poverty, political instability and drought, that have made a traditionally poor region even more susceptible to extremism, violence and human suffering. Regional instability caused by terrorism in the Sahel has wider implications for Africa and Europe, with this ongoing conflict causing untold suffering and mass displacement. For these reasons it is crucial that the international community support the countries of the Sahel to tackle extremism in the region to allow for countries like Mali to be politically stable, economically develop and so that civilians can be adequately protected from conflict and terrorism.