France is poised to announce the withdrawal of its military mission in Mali, Operation Barkhane, after nine years of battling jihadists in the region. At the request of Malian authorities, France launched an intervention in January 2013 to oust Islamists who had taken over much of the north.
Half of the 4,500 French soldiers currently deployed for Operation Barkhane are stationed in Mali but will soon leave the country after coming under pressure from Mali’s new military leaders, who seized power in a 2020 coup.
Against a backdrop of growing anti-French sentiment in the Sahel – and after the expulsion of the French ambassador to Mali in January – Paris announced that it wanted to rely increasingly on the Takuba Task Force, a European military unit, to take the pressure off the French military.
“It is clear that the situation can’t go on like this,” French government spokesman Gabriel Attal told France Info radio on February 1. He said Paris and its partners in the Takuba mission would decide together on changes to military deployments in Mali.
Paris is also counting on regional allies, notably Niger and Chad, to continue battling jihadist insurgents.
“If the conditions are no longer in place for us to be able to act in Mali – which is clearly the case – we will continue to fight terrorism side-by-side with Sahel countries who want it,” French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday.
After nine years of French military involvement and with a death toll of 53 French soldiers in the Sahel, FRANCE 24 takes a look at the French and European military presence in the region.
Operation Barkhane in Mali
At the request of the Malian government, France launched Operation Serval on January 11, 2013, to block the advance of a convoy of jihadists and Tuareg rebels headed towards the capital Bamako.
The following year France established Operation Barkhane, which has become the longest French overseas military operation since the end of the Algerian war. It had up to 5,500 soldiers deployed in Mali, Niger and Chad in partnership with the five countries in the Sahel-Saharan zone (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad).
According to data published by France’s Ministry of Defence in December 2021, Operation Barkhane has three military bases in northern Mali. The main one is located in Gao and has combat helicopters, troops (known as GTD, “groupements tactiques désert” or tactical desert troops) and heavily armoured vehicles.
Gao is where the bulk of the French military presence in Mali is based, supplemented by elements of the Takuba Task Force, which comprises 800 troops from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden. Half of this task force is comprised of French soldiers. Three British CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters have also been deployed in Gao since mid-July 2018.
Two other forward operating bases (bases established as a deterrent to jihadist forces) are located in the desert expanses of northern Mali. Takuba Task Force has been operating in Menaka since March 2021, as has a Swedish rapid reaction helicopter force. The French army also has a tactical unit in Gossi. Finally, in Ansongo there is a light reconnaissance and intervention unit that is part of Takuba.
Between October and December 2021, French forces withdrew from Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu. In early January 2022, Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group moved into the Timbuktu military base.
Redeployment of troops to Niger and Chad?
Outside Mali, French forces have two permanent military bases in this region. The first is in Niamey, the capital of Niger, where the main air base of Operation Barkhane is located. Along with six Reaper drones and seven Mirage fighter planes, a combat unit also occupies this base, which is located near the so-called three-border zone (the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger).
France’s Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly went to Niamey at the beginning of February for talks with Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum. Considered a reliable French ally in the region, Niger could play a central role in the new military arrangement.
Further east, in Chad, is the command post of the Barkhane operation. An air base is located in N’Djamena, the Chadian capital. With five to eight transport aircraft, it carries out essential logistical missions with a range covering five million square kilometres (10 times the size of France).
Solid French military presence in West Africa
In recent weeks the French government has reaffirmed its willingness to continue to fight against the spread of jihadism to the Gulf of Guinea, which has already been seen in northern Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Benin.
Last week’s attacks in northern Benin, which left at least nine people dead including a Frenchman, undoubtedly reinforced this decision. The French military also announced on February 12 that it had eliminated 40 jihadists in Burkina Faso who were involved in the attacks in Benin.
Paris has a solid and long-standing military presence on the West African coast to fight against movements affiliated with al Qaeda or the Islamic State group.
In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, there are 950 soldiers at the French base. These troops “constitute a major strategic, operational and logistical platform on the West African coastline, also known as a forward operating base”, according to France’s ministry of defence.
In Gabon, a detail of 350 soldiers housed in Camp De Gaulle near Libreville airport are in place to react to any situation. In Senegal, the French army has 350 men in Ouakam and at the military port of Dakar as well as a landing strip.
In the Sahel, there is also the headquarters of Operation Sabre near Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Since 2009, 350 to 400 French special forces soldiers have been stationed there. Most of the jihadist leaders killed in recent years have been eliminated by operations conducted by this unit.