BAMAKO, Mali -- France’s announcement Thursday that it will withdraw its troops from Mali was anticipated by many in this West African nation where Malians have protested the presence of soldiers from the former colonial power. But politicians and experts worry the French pull-out will result in a security vacuum that will embolden jihadi groups to increase their power.
“Today it's the terrorist groups who are happy with this announcement,” said Amadou Koita, former Cabinet minister in the government of former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. He told The Associated Press he heard with regret French President Emmanuel Macron's announcement Thursday that France will withdraw its military from Mali within six months. France has troops in two military operations in Mali, Barkane and Takuba.
“We wanted our country to continue to benefit from the military support of France and Europe, and to make Mali a barrier against terrorism,” he said. “We hope that this announcement does not mean an abandonment of Mali by its partners and we hope that Mali will continue to benefit from cooperation with the entire international community.”
Mali's security now lies in the hands of its own forces, Mali's former Prime Minister Moussa Mara said.
“I take note of this announcement of the departure of Barkhane and Takuba and it is now up to us Malians to organize ourselves and make efforts to take charge of our defense and our security,” he said.
Experts, however, note that Mali's security forces will be challenged to reorganize effectively in the six months' timeline of the evacuation announced by Macron.
French troops will leave their bases in Gossi, in Mali’s central Gourma zone, in the north in Gao and in the east in Menaka.
“It’s a short period to give the Malian army time to reorganize on the ground ... This scenario can lead the country to a new reoccupation of areas as in 2012 by jihadist groups,” said Ibrahim Maiga, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
“We know that the leader of the jihadist group Iyad Ag Ghaly said that for him to negotiate peace with the Malian authorities, Barkhane must first leave," he said. "So the question now is will the jihadist leaders stick to their word by negotiating directly with Bamako directly after Barkhane’s departure? Or will they try to reoccupy the ground (they held before) to have power before negotiating?”
Malian army spokesman Col. Major Souleymane Dembélé said that despite the presence of French and European forces in Mali, it continues to be plagued by jihadists who have encroached in many areas.
“What have they given us?” he asked during a press conference. “It is true that (the departure of European forces” raises concerns, but Mali is not alone and will not remain alone. France and European countries can leave. I don’t want to anticipate. Let’s give it time and you will see what will happen.”
An August 2020 coup led by Col. Assimi Goita grabbed power in Mali. Goita carried out a second coup by dismissing the civilian leaders in Mali’s transitional government and putting himself in charge last year. Many Malians have since staged large demonstrations against the French presence in the country.
An earlier coup in 2012 resulted in jihadi rebels seizing control of Mali's northern centers including Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. France sent troops in 2013 which pushed the extremists out of those cities, but the rebels have remained a strong presence in the vast rural areas.
France has about 2,400 troops in Mali, as part of its 4,300 troops in West Africa's Sahel region. The Operation Barkhane regional force is also involved in Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. France ultimately aims to reduce the number of its troops in the Sahel to about 2,500 or 3,000, French Armed Forces spokesman, Col. Pascal Ianni, said.
In Mali, the Barkhane force aimed to help the nation’s army and administrative officers to return to northern areas that were occupied by jihadi groups linked to al-Qaida in 2012.
Faced with an inability to succeed in both missions, France in 2021 had planned a gradual withdrawal from its bases in Tessalit, Kidal and Timbuktu. The French authorities had intended for Barkhane to give way in the years ahead for Operation Takuba, which is composed of special forces from multiple European countries. Diplomatic relations, however, have been strained between France and Mali for some time.
Takuba also was weakened recently when Mali abruptly said Danish troops should leave the country.
Neighboring Burkina Faso, which has experienced enormous losses and displacement as extremism has grown there, will face difficulties ahead with this decision, according to experts.
”The impact on security in Burkina Faso will be very difficult because the north and center of Mali are beyond the control of the Malian state due to the weak security network. If European troops leave Mali, the area will be a base for terrorist groups. This will be very difficult for Burkina Faso. Hopefully, Mali will be able to quickly find another strategy to occupy the area after the departure of foreign forces,” said Mamadou Drabo, head of the civil society group Save Burkina Faso.
“As France withdraws from Mali, it seeks to increase its presence in Burkina Faso, which already has been evidenced by its increased military engagement in recent weeks through a series of operations across the country. The question is how a stronger French presence will be perceived by Burkinabes given the growing anti-French sentiment in the region. Something that could trigger unrest and pose a problem for the newly installed military junta in Ouagadougou,” said Heni Nsaibia, senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
AP writer Sam Mednick in Jacqueville, Ivory Coast contributed.