West Africa: Macron Announces Major Overhaul of France's Operation in Sahel

Published June 11, 2021, 4:19 a.m.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday announced an overhaul of France's military operations in the Sahel, saying today's Barkhane force would no longer exist in its current form.

"The time has come - the continuation of our commitment in the Sahel will not be in the same way," Macron told a press conference, calling for a "profound transformation" and a new international force for the region.

Macron said the overhaul would entail the closure of some French army bases.

Following discussions with partners, he said, the fight against Islamist terrorists in the region would be carried on instead by special forces, including a significant French component of several hundred soldiers, as well as forces from other countries in Europe, Africa and elsewhere.

Their mission will be "interventions strictly in the combat against terrorism," Macron told journalists.

France currently has 5,100 troops in the Sahel region, which stretches across Africa beneath the Sahara desert encompassing Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Macron has pushed for years for other Western states to share more of the burden of security operations that see French soldiers, backed by air power, intervening against jihadist groups alongside local forces.

Opponents of Barkhane

He also faces pressure at home to end a deployment that began in January 2013, while in the Sahel region itself the presence of French forces is opposed by some politicians and locals who see it as a colonial throwback.

Macron's announcement could force the issue of security in the Sahel onto the agenda of the meeting of G7 leaders in Britain set to run from Friday to Sunday and a summit of the NATO military alliance in Brussels on June 14.

The Sahel is seen by many Western politicians and experts as a major risk area because of the growing strength of jihadist groups there, as well as its role as a crossroads for arms and people-smuggling.

In February, Macron announced his intention to reduce French troops but said that a "massive withdrawal of men, which is a possibility I have considered, would be a mistake".

At a virtual summit held at the time, the leaders of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, known as the G5 countries, warned him against the dangers of a rapid pullout.

Since then veteran Chad leader and close French ally Idriss Déby Itno was killed in battle while Mali saw a second coup that has complicated relations with Paris.

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