Amid fears of an increase in terrorist attacks on the African continent, the French Operation Barkhane forces in Mali began preparing to withdraw from the African Sahel region, as France stressed that its military withdrawal from the Sahel region means closing French bases and limiting the special forces that will focus on counter-terrorism operations and military training.
France’s Operation Barkhane achieved some successes in the Sahel region, including the killing of the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, last year, but the attacks of armed groups continued, and counter-insurgency efforts claimed the lives of 50 French soldiers, which led to calls in France to review the mission.
Operation Barkhane was launched on August 1, 2014, and was formed in cooperation with five countries in the African Sahel region, namely Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Despite the French operation, one million people were displaced due to the fighting, and 50 French soldiers were killed. The French forces sustained their first casualties during a battle in early November 2014, which also resulted in the deaths of 24 terrorists.
On April 12, 2016, three French soldiers were killed when their armored carriers hit a land mine. A convoy of about 60 cars was traveling to Mali’s northern desert town of Tessalit when it hit the mine. On March 15, 2017, French forces arrested eight terrorists in the desert north of Timbuktu.
On 5 April 2017, Julien Barbé was killed at work near Hombori after an explosive device detonated an armored vehicle. He was posthumously made a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
On October 14, 2017, an Antonov-26 aircraft operating in support of Operation Barkhane crashed shortly before landing at Félix-Houphouet-Boigny International Airport in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, killing four Moldovan cabin crew members and wounding two Moldovan crew members and four French soldiers.
Takuba replaces Barkhane
At the same time, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that his country was in the process of forming an international coalition to combat terrorist groups in the African Sahel, saying during a press conference, “At the end of the consultations, we will begin a profound change of our military presence in the Sahel region,” declaring the end of Operation Barkhane as a foreign operation and the formation of an international coalition that includes the countries of the region.
Meanwhile, a French official in West Africa said that Macron will announce a reduction in the number of French forces fighting terrorists in the Sahel region of West Africa.
Task Force Takuba, which is expected to take over the task instead of Barkhane, consists of about 600 European Union special forces, half of them French, stationed in Mali, in addition to 140 Swedes and dozens of Estonians and Czechs.
The decision to reduce the number of Operation Barkhane forces comes after Mali’s military commander, Colonel Assimi Goïta, seized power following the overthrow of the second president in nine months. Macron described the move as a “coup within a coup” and temporarily suspended joint French and Malian operations.
Many Western politicians and experts view the Sahel region as a major threat due to the growing strength of terrorist groups there, as well as its geographic location at the crossroads of arms and people smuggling, as local leaders in the region have warned that they will struggle to prevent the rebels from spreading further in the event of a rapid French withdrawal.
The French newspaper L’Express commented on Macron’s decision to end Operation Barkhane, as it was an expected decision, saying in a report that showed the failure of the French operation that was launched under the leadership of former President Francois Hollande, “After 8 Years of intense clashes and the death of many French soldiers and civilians, Macron decided to reduce the military presence, close the bases and modify the form of the fight against terrorists in the region.”
Despite the newspaper’s assertion that part of the decision was due to political differences between France and Mali against the backdrop of the implementation of a second coup in less than a year, L’Express referred to the economic losses incurred by Paris due to Barkhane, as it was the largest military operation launched by Paris abroad, saying, “The budget for French military operations, both abroad and domestically, rose in 2020 by more than €60 million compared to 2019.”
For its part, the French newspaper Le Monde said that the decision puts an end to the illusion about any possible military victory, as the newspaper considered that Macron’s announcement of the decision to reduce the number of French forces in the operation and complete withdrawal by 2023 only means that the results of eight years of French intervention in the Sahel region is not great, considering that the negative results appear in the continuing human losses, pointing out that more than 8,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since 2013.
Le Monde noted that although the short-lived victories of the operation did not deal fatal blows to the armed groups linked to al-Qaeda or ISIS in the region, it is time to blow the whistle of the end of Barkhane; however, this does not mean that France will abandon the region.
On the other hand, the website of the French Public Senat channel, in a report on ending the military presence in the African Sahel, shed light on the loss of life incurred by the French army, as it confirmed that 50 French soldiers have been killed since 2013 in military operations, including five killed since the beginning of this year. It pointed out that the French failure in this context appeared when the French Foreign Ministry stressed that the solution to this crisis could only be political.