Macron reassures African leaders of their commitment to the fight against terrorism


President Emmanuel Macron will seek Friday to reassure the leaders of the Sahel on his commitment to the fight against terrorism in Africa, during their first talks since he announced a reduction of French troops in West Africa.

The decision last month to downsize French forces – and hopefully convince EU allies to step up their presence – opens an uncertain phase in the fight against jihadist insurgents who control large swathes of the country. West Africa.

Further political turmoil in Mali and Chad, where military juntas are now in command, raise new questions about whether local governments can effectively tackle the Islamist threat.

France did not specify how many of the 5,100 troops of its Barkhane counterterrorism force will remain in the region.

Defense Minister Florence Parly said the government would announce the changes “quite soon”.

She insisted that “this transformation does not mean a departure from the Sahel, nor that we will abandon our counterterrorism operations”.

A source close to the project told AFP that the number of troops would drop to around 3,500 over the next year and 2,500 by the end of 2023.

The commandos of the “Saber” task force will remain to hunt down the leaders of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, the source said on condition of anonymity.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, talks with the presidents of Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania will be held by video, with only Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum visiting Paris.

He and Macron are expected to hold a press conference afterwards.

– Underlying political issues –

Announcing Barkhane’s withdrawal eight years after the first deployment of French soldiers against a jihadist advance in Mali, Macron warned that military force “cannot substitute for political stability”.

He urged Sahelian leaders to win public support by rooting out corruption in their impoverished states and restoring government control and services in areas where Islamist fighters have closed schools and driven tens of thousands of people from their house.

The results have been disheartening, with France going so far as to suspend military cooperation with Mali last month after officers staged a second coup in nine months.

Meanwhile, Chadian military junta leader Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno traveled to Paris this week for talks with Macron, who pledged more French aid after Deby’s father died in April while ‘he was at the forefront of a battle against the rebels.

“Political events in Mali and Chad regularly raise the question of our commitment to the Sahel,” General François Lecointre, chief of staff of the French armies, told the Senate last month.

“We have not resolved ‘the security problems’ which arise as much from political as military issues,” said the Frankish officer, who is retiring this month.

– “Essential changes” –

France has also struggled to train local troops grouped into an anti-jihadist G5 Sahel alliance that remains outmatched in many areas by jihadist fighters who have staged increasingly daring attacks in recent months.

Paris is now considering integrating its presence into the so-called international task force Takuba, originally a training operation for Mali. The force currently comprises around 600 soldiers, half of them French.

So far, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy and Sweden have responded to Macron’s calls for contributions to help Takuba function more as a counterterrorism mission.

Even though larger allies like Germany have sent hundreds of troops, winning the fight against insurgents spread across a semi-desert area the size of Western Europe will not be easy.

“For many European governments, the current extent of their military involvement in the Sahel already goes against political red lines at home,” said Andrew Lebovich, researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Development projects need security combined with improved governance and government presence to be effective,” Lebovich wrote in an analysis this month.

“A poorly coordinated withdrawal and the formation of an ad hoc coalition risks the worst of all worlds, creating political and security costs for Europe ….

dla-dab / js / cb / har

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