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France suspends military operations in Mali

A week after a new coup in Bamako, Paris has decided to send a clear warning to the junta
El presidente francés, Emmanuel Macron (C), y el ministro de Asuntos Exteriores francés, Jean-Yves Le Drian (L), visitan a las tropas de la operación francesa Barkhane en Malí

PHOTO/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON  -   French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) visit French Operation Barkhane troops in Mali.

Paris announced the suspension of its joint military operations with Bamako, in an attempt to push the ruling junta towards the political transition demanded by the international community. The French operation Barkhane will continue to operate, but alone for the time being, according to the Ministry of Defence. With this decision, Paris shows its condemnation of the coup d'état and tries to support the international community's pressure on the coup plotters to return power to civilians at the end of the elections scheduled for 2022.

se muestra el logotipo de operaciones especiales dirigido por Francia para la nueva Fuerza de Tarea Barkhane Takuba PHOTO/AFP
PHOTO/AFP-French-led special operations logo shown for the new Task Force Barkhane Takuba

With this decision, France is following in the footsteps of the African Union and the Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which, at the end of an extraordinary session devoted to the crisis in Mali, suspended Mali from all its institutions following the double coup d'état perpetrated by the military led by Vice-President Assimi Goita, who assumed supreme command, endorsed by the Constitutional Court. 

Such events have reignited the debate on the logic of continuing in Mali. France, with some 5,100 troops in Operation Barkhane, as well as ground and air assets ensuring regional 'stability' and the security of Niger's uranium mines, important for French industry, has been supporting Mali, which since 2021 has been facing a jihadist push from the north that has plunged the country into a security crisis. 

A las manos llegaron los diputados de la cámara que representa a 55 países del continente africano.  PHOTO/ARCHIVO
PHOTO/ARCHIVO-The deputies of the chamber representing 55 countries of the African Union came to blows.

Due to this enormous presence, which costs France 1 billion euros a year, Paris has been trying for a long time to share the economic and human effort. To this end, Task Force Takuba was created, a force that is integrated into Operation Barkhane, but which, in addition to French elements, is made up of troops from a dozen European countries. Task Force Takuba, however, is among the suspended activities. 

Problems are piling up for Barkhane. For the past year, France has been trying to Europeanise crisis management in the Sahel. Without democratic legitimacy in the Sahel, Paris will find it difficult to be followed by its partners. This is all the more so because the chronic instability in Mali is compounded by the Chadian problem: following the death of Idriss Déby, a period of uncertainty has opened up in that country. Under pressure from these events, France is trying to regain the initiative. The head of state also stressed that the French army could not fight terrorism in the Sahel on its own, and that its presence on the ground required the strengthening of stable and legitimate institutions.

coronel Assimi Goita, que se ha autoproclamado líder del Comité Nacional para la Salvación del Pueblo AP/BABA AHMED
AP/BABA AHMED-Colonel Assimi Goita, the self-proclaimed leader of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People

Engagement with Mali is a difficult balancing act for France. On the one hand, there are security policy interests, as well as economic ones. France has an interest in exploiting the resources of the Sahelian soil, especially oil and uranium.

The future of Barkhane is complicated by mounting military losses and public fatigue with the conflict, which is influencing the future political scenario, with a presidential election in 2022 as the main event. Politically, Operation Barkhane may influence the future of the Elysée, especially in terms of its impact on improving France's security and the debate over the usefulness of the mission. 

oldados franceses de la Operación Barkhane, una operación antiterrorista en el Sahel, patrullan en vehículo blindado en Gao, norte de Malí PHOTO/AFP
PHOTO/AFP-French soldiers from Operation Barkhane, an anti-terrorist operation in the Sahel, patrol in an armoured vehicle in Gao, northern Mali.

Over the years, the French operation has come up against a socio-political reality that makes its presence difficult for the local population. French President Emmanuel Macron had warned that France would withdraw its troops if Mali went 'in the direction' of radical Islamism, referring to the willingness of some Malian leaders to negotiate with the jihadists. But in reality, the question of the future of the French military presence in the Sahel had already been raised before the new coup d'état. Even before this second coup d'état, France was already planning to begin a gradual withdrawal of its troops from a costly operation in human and financial terms, less than a year before the French presidential elections, and at a time when the armed forces are increasingly mobilising resources in the face of threats of high-intensity conflict.