France and EU to withdraw troops from Mali but will remain in the region

French soldiers boarding a transport plane
French soldiers wrapping up a four-month tour of duty in the Sahel board a transport plane in Gao, Mali.
(Jerome Delay / Associated Press)

France will withdraw its troops from Mali nine years after it first intervened to drive Islamic extremists from power but intends to maintain a military presence in neighboring West African nations, French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday.

Macron accused Mali’s ruling military junta of neglecting the fight against Islamic extremists and said it was logical for France to withdraw since its role is not to replace a sovereign state on the battlefield.

“Victory against terror is not possible if it’s not supported by the state itself,” the French leader told a news conference with European Union and African Union officials.


France has about 4,300 troops in the Sahel region, including 2,400 in Mali. The so-called Barkhane force is also involved in Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. A French Armed Forces spokesperson, Col. Pascal Ianni, said France ultimately aims to reduce the number of its troops in the Sahel to between 2,500 and 3,000.

Macron said the French pullout would be done “in an orderly manner” in coordination with the Malian military.

France will start by closing military bases in the north of Mali, and the withdrawal will take four to six months, he said.

The sudden French military intervention against Islamist extremists in northern Mali raises questions about France’s ability to rout the well-armed militants from a forbidding section of North Africa.

An August 2020 coup led by Col. Assimi Goita seized 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.

“We cannot remain militarily involved” alongside Malian transitional authorities with whom “we don’t share the strategy and goals,” Macron said.

Coinciding with Macron’s announcement, other European leaders said Thursday that troops from an EU-led military task force known as Takuba also would withdraw from Mali. The Takuba task force is composed of several hundred special forces troops from about a dozen countries, including France.

Asked whether British troops would leave Mali, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the bulk of Britons there were working with the United Nations alongside German and Swedish troops.

France’s president says the head of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has been killed.

“We are already speaking together, the three nations, to see what that means for us,” he said.

Mali’s transitional government asked Denmark to pull out its small military force last month just one week after it arrived as part of the EU contingent. Tensions have grown between Mali, its African neighbors and the European Union, especially after the Malian transitional government allowed Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group to deploy in its territory.

Macron said support for civilians in Mali would continue, but he blamed the junta now ruling the country for its decision to hire the Wagner Group, which the EU accuses of fomenting violence and committing human rights abuses in Africa.

“They have now come to Mali to act in a very predatory manner,” Macron said. He asserted that there were some 800 Wagner mercenaries present in the country who “have mostly come to secure their economic interests.”

Mali once again reeled Friday under a terrorist attack, the latest violence in a country that has been racked by war for more than half a century.

Macron said a coalition of allies would remain in the Sahel and the Guinea Gulf to counter actions from Al Qaeda and Islamic State, adding that French troops would help secure the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali before leaving.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said she was “skeptical” that Germany could continue to take part in the training of Mali armed forces, raising doubts about the EU mission’s future.

Macron organized a meeting in Paris on Wednesday evening with regional and European leaders of countries involved in the Sahel ahead of a two-day EU-Africa summit in Brussels. Representatives from Mali and Burkina Faso were not invited since both nations were suspended from the African Union following coups.

Senegalese President Macky Sall, who also chairs the African Union, said he understood the decisions by France and the EU to end their operations in Mali but was pleased that an agreement on a new arrangement was reached to provide a continued presence in the Sahel.

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Sall said there was a consensus that the fight against terror “should not be the sole business of African countries.”

Macron said the heart of the French operation “won’t be in Mali anymore” but in neighboring Niger, especially in the region bordering Burkina Faso.

Anti-poverty organization Oxfam criticized the planned withdrawal as a “terrible admission of failure.” The group said more than 2.1 million of people have left the country because of violence, and 13 million more were in need of humanitarian assistance.

“The military redeployment announced today will solve nothing if lessons are not learned about the reasons for this failure,” Assalama Dawalack Sidi, Oxfam’s West Africa regional director, said.