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After eight years of Mali campaign, France seeks exit strategy

French Defence Minister Florence Parly, right, pays tribute on January 5, 2021, to three soldiers killed in Mali in late December.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly, right, pays tribute on January 5, 2021, to three soldiers killed in Mali in late December. JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN AFP
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Paris (AFP)

Eight years after France sent troops to Mali to prevent jihadists from overrunning the country, it faces tough choices over how to keep pursuing Islamist extremists without becoming bogged down in a potentially unwinnable war.

Five French soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs in Mali over the past 10 days, bringing to 50 the number of troops killed across the Sahel since France launched a campaign to clear northern Mali of jihadists in January 2013.

The latest victims included Sergeant Yvonne Huynh, the first female soldier killed since the French intervention began.

Her death Saturday, claimed by a group linked to al-Qaeda, coincided with a massacre across the border in western Niger, where unidentified gunmen killed around 100 villagers in one of the region's worst atrocities.

These deaths -- and disputed claims Tuesday from villagers in central Mali that up to 20 wedding guests were killed in an air strike -- have clouded recent successes chalked up by France's 5,100-member Barkhane counterterrorism force and its African partners.

- Shifting public mood -

In the past year, the French have killed the leader of the notorious al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb group, Abdelmalek Droukdel, as well as one of the military leaders of the al-Qaeda affiliated Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).

Anxious to avoid becoming mired in a long Afghan-style conflict, Paris is preparing to announce a withdrawal of the 600 additional troops it deployed to the Sahel last year.

But whether the drawdown signals the beginning of the end of France's Sahel mission is not yet clear.

Defence sources have told AFP that President Emmanuel Macron would like to go further in reducing the number of French troops in the Sahel region before the next presidential election in April/May 2022.

"Up until now the French have not really questioned France's role in the Sahel. But you have to be very careful. Public opinion can change very quickly," a government source told AFP.

- Buying time -

In a sign that the Sahel mission could become a domestic political football, some opposition politicians have already begun to question the wisdom of staying the course.

"War in Mali: for how much longer?" the hard-left France Unbowed party queried on Monday.

"The more we help Mali the more it collapses," said Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos of France's Institute of Development Research (IRD).

He pointed to a military coup in August that echoed a putsch in 2012, a year before the French arrived.

"The longer we stay the harder it will be to leave," Perouse de Montclos said, adding: "Beyond the number of (French) dead, the real question is how to withdraw without losing face."

But for Michael Shurkin, senior political scientist at the US-based defence think-tank Rand Corporation, "this was never going to be quick."

Citing long-running governance issues in the region, he said: "All France can do is buy time and create space for its African partners to be doing what they should be doing."

- IS versus al-Qaeda -

The growing assertiveness of the Qaeda-linked GSIM, meanwhile, could vex plans for a staged pullout.

France had identified the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara group as the number-one threat to the region, but its efforts to stop IS, which was defeated in Syria, from regrouping in the Sahel have had the effect of bolstering its arch-rival.

"Today it (the GSIM) is Mali's worst enemy," Barkhane's commander General Marc Conruyt acknowledged in November.

France is pinning many hopes on a new elite European force, Takuba, set up to support Malian combat troops following repeated appeals by Paris for more burden-sharing by its EU partners.

In the past year Barkhane has also stepped up its cooperation with a regional five-country force, the G5 Sahel, which France hopes will eventually shoulder regional security.

But the G5 Sahel remains poorly-trained and underfunded -- it is chronically short of air power, surveillance and intelligence-gathering.

In an interview with Radio France Internationale (RFI) in early December, the G5 Sahel commander admitted that the force was still dependent on France "to offset the gaps in our national forces."

"For us, as a joint force, it would be premature to consider (a reduction in Barkhane) and risky for the G5 Sahel," General Oumarou Namata Gazama warned.

Defence Minister Florence Parly, in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper this week, reiterated that French forces were "not destined to stay forever" in the Sahel.

She insisted, though, that they would stay "as long as is necessary" for Sahel nations to "be capable of responding themselves to the (jihadist) threat, which is what they are starting to do."

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