France ended its nine-year military deployment in Mali on Monday as President Macron approved the official withdrawal of all French troops from the West African nation marred by political violence and a rise in Islamic extremism.
France initially sent 5,000 troops into the former French colony back in 2013 following the return home of insurgents and mercenaries who had helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and remained determined to fight for the independence of Mali’s northern territory. The anti-insurgent mission was named Operation Barkhane.
Despite being initially welcomed by the locals, the reputation of the French military across the country diminished over time, and the frequency of terrorist attacks and guerrilla warfare conducted on Malian soil rose rapidly.
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Critics of the French withdrawal, however, have accused President Macron of abandoning the country and relinquishing all control to the spate of terrorist organizations operating out of both Mali and the wider Sahel region. Parallels have been drawn to the disastrous military withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan last year, and the return to power of the Taliban.
“Mali is now alone with its choices,” wrote Nicolas Barotte, the defense correspondent for French newspaper Le Figaro. “Faced with the jihadist groups of the RVIM, linked to Al-Qaeda, and the EIGS, affiliated with Daesh, Bamako will no longer be able to count on the support of the Barkhane force, which withdrew its last soldiers on Monday,” he added.
Following France’s lukewarm enthusiasm for the continued military operation in recent times, the Malian government resorted to cosying up to the Kremlin and private Russian military groups like Wagner, which has increased its significant presence in the country. Barotte explains in his analysis for Le Figaro that 1,000 Russian mercenaries are now stationed in the country, supporting the operations of the Malian armed forces. It is arguable, however, that their presence has merely antagonized locals and aided the recruitment drives of Islamic extremist organizations.
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“The capacity for recruitment is infinite,” one source in the French military told the newspaper.
“It’s hard to see how the (Malian military) Fama and Wagner are going to prevent the tide from rising again,” they added.
As French soldiers packed up their belongings and dismantled military camps, the inevitable security deterioration of Mali has been evident to all. At the end of last month, Malian armed forces attempted to repel terrorist attacks in the towns of Sávaré, Sokolo, and Kalumba, which resulted in 54 casualties.
Further to this, 42 Malian soldiers died during an attack in Tessit at the beginning of August, the responsibility for which was claimed by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS), a terrorist group that has shown considerable signs of regeneration in the last two years.
On Monday, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the deaths of four Russian mercenaries in an ambush in the town of Bandiagara in central Mali.
“The war (the Malian army) will have to wage against the jihadists promises to be violent,” Barotte wrote, warning that such a conflict will inevitably “result in many losses in the civilian population.”