President and Foreign Minister explain reasons for military withdrawal from Mali

Foreign policy/Mali – Excerpts from the interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to LCI, in a live link from Brussels

Paris, 18 February 2022

Q. – (…) Emmanuel Macron made our withdrawal in Mali official yesterday. (…) You’ve been in the front line on this issue right from the start in 2013. Back then you were Defence Minister, so, in a way, you’ve been following the issue for nine years. Doesn’t this forced withdrawal leave a bitter taste?

THE MINISTER – It isn’t merely a withdrawal. It’s a restructuring of our effort and our battle against terrorism. I must say that the objectives set by President Hollande in 2013 – at the request of the Malian authorities, at the request of the authorities in the country concerned – are on the point of being achieved, insofar as the first one, back then when I was Defence Minister, was to halt the movement of terrorist groups which were sweeping down on Bamako to make Mali, in the end, a kind of Islamic caliphate – that wasn’t possible. That was halted. First objective achieved.

Second objective: we had to contain the threats posed by these groups claiming to represent al-Qaeda and Daesh – so, groups very dangerous to the security of the African countries concerned, but also to our own security, because having these groups fully able to take over territories also meant our own security being put at risk.

Then, thirdly: we had to ensure that the African forces were able to ensure their own security themselves.

Those three objectives have been achieved, but now there’s been a change of agenda by one of those countries, Mali – which, incidentally, has been ostracized by the other African countries. Not a single African country today supports Mali. Mali, with a junta which took power, which seized power, which wants to seize power for seven years, has changed agenda. Its major issue is no longer the fight against terrorism. Its major issue is to remain in power and, in the end, take the Malian people hostage, and at that point we can’t go on working in those conditions because there’s been a kind of twofold split. A political split with the Malian authorities, and an operational split, because today’s Mali, with the junta in power, is putting obstacles in the way of how our forces function operationally, and so we’re going to continue the fight against terrorism, but differently.

Q. – I imagine that you object to the term “failure”, as Emmanuel Macron did yesterday. Nevertheless, for the reasons you’ve said, we could have stayed but we aren’t. It’s a failure all the same – whose failure?

THE MINISTER – I don’t see where the failure is, insofar as the objectives we set ourselves have been achieved; if there is a failure, it’s to be found with the junta, which has taken no initiative to strengthen action against terrorism and turned all its neighbours against it.

So the junta is isolated. All the Africans involved – we saw it the day before yesterday in the evening, when there was a meeting between President Macron and African and European leaders – agree on two things. Firstly, we must continue the fight against terrorism. We must do so slightly differently insofar as, secondly, the junta isn’t honouring its commitments and has withdrawn from the whole African and European convergence that has existed until now.

Q. – The junta, you say: we’re leaving it. Indeed, France is leaving Mali. The Malian army has been reinforced; there are now 40,000 troops; with the junta in power, is it capable of fighting the terrorists?

THE MINISTER – The Malian army has been reinforced, reorganized. The issue now is whether it obeys the junta and whether it’s in retreat in terms of its fight against terrorism. That’s an issue for Mali, it’s no longer one for France.

Q. – Yes, but what’s your assessment? What’s your diagnosis, your prognosis, if that’s possible, about the ability locally to combat the terrorists? You know my question, French people are asking it: are we now leaving the field open to the terrorists, with a Malian army that isn’t capable of confronting them?

THE MINISTER – No, because the forces of what’s called the Sahel Joint Force are still very mobilized, be it in Niger, Burkina Faso or the Gulf of Guinea countries, because the threat has changed a lot. Until now the threat has been concentrated on Mali; now it’s unfortunately spread both to the so-called tri-border area – the area between Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali – and now, dramatically, to the Gulf of Guinea countries. So the proposed action which was embarked on the evening before last, and consolidated in the communiqué issued yesterday, is indeed to restructure our set-up, to have a different presence in the various African States that would like France and the Europeans’ support in combating terrorism, and to do so with a framework nation, which would be France.

Q. – Have we finished with these types of military operation in Africa, which are costly in terms of troops and budgets? Are they over? Because there was a kind of utopian view we must now put behind us…

THE MINISTER – There’s a major battle we must fight against Daesh, against al-Qaeda. It’s the one we’ve fought in the Middle East and are continuing to fight. And we’re very well aware that Daesh and al-Qaeda now want to make Africa their priority field of action. That’s not only the case in the area I’m talking to you about, there are other parts of Africa where the threat is tangible. So we must support the African authorities, and Europe can be on the front line in this regard in combating terrorism.

Q. – But you’ve said: we’re going to do things differently. In a way, you told me so earlier: “we’re not abandoning the fight against terrorism; we’re going to carry it out differently”. So are we finished with these types of operation – Serval and then Barkhane?

THE MINISTER – It’s a different way of operating, because we must support the African military forces more, to enable them to ensure their own security themselves. That’s the new scenario, and I think the right agreement has been reached with the African heads of State. (…)./.

Sahel/West Africa – Introductory statement by M. Emmanuel Macron, President of the Republic, at his joint press conference with Mr Macky Sall, President of Senegal, Mr Nana Akufo-Addo, President of Ghana, and Mr Charles Michel, President of the European Council, on the fight against the terrorist threat and support for peace and security in West Africa (excerpt)

Paris, 17 February 2022

(Check against delivery)

(…)

At a time when other strategic threats are hanging over the security of the European continent and rightly occupying our diplomatic attention, it was important first of all to send a message of continuity about our commitment to the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. Europe is a trusted partner that engages in the long term alongside its allies to confront threats extending over a long period, and it stands by ECOWAS, the African Union and the G5 Sahel.

The threat faced by the countries of the Sahel and the region has a name: al-Qaeda and Daesh. These two terrorist organizations have decided to make Africa, and the Sahel in particular – and now increasingly the Gulf of Guinea – a priority of their expansion strategy. To this end, they’re investing in and exploiting local causes in order more effectively to pursue a global and regional agenda.

This justifies us remaining engaged in the region in the long term, and having confronted those organizations on our own territory and in other geographical areas, we’re well placed to know this requires consistency and tenacity. Since 2013 and President François Hollande’s courageous decision to intervene in Mali at the request of the Malian authorities and [other] authorities in the region, France has played a unifying role in this international mobilization for the Sahel, where nearly 25,000 troops are now deployed under the various international missions.

The decisions we took at the Pau summit in January 2020, then in N’Djamena in February 2021, enabled us to further broaden this process and now take action in the framework of a coalition for the Sahel. As I told my interlocutors yesterday, we’ll continue to play this unifying role and, wherever a military dimension is necessary, the role of framework nation.

In addition to maintaining our commitment, the discussions also led to consensus on developing the practicalities of our action in the Sahel, in four directions.

The first is by further involving and supporting the Sahelian Strip’s neighbouring countries, namely the Gulf of Guinea countries. As the attacks carried out in northern Benin a few days ago demonstrated, those States are increasingly exposed to attempts by terrorist groups to gain a foothold on their territory.

While the G5 Sahel remains an essential forum for coordinating efforts across the Sahelian Strip, the Accra Initiative, which brings together Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin, must also become a key framework – not in order to create new regional structures but to ensure that each State does its bit in the effort and receives the bilateral support it needs from the partners. Terrorist groups exploit the porous nature of borders, and cross-border coordination is essential for countering this strategy. That’s the whole point of strengthening coordination between the countries of the region, and it’s why the G5 Sahel, the Accra Initiative, more broadly ECOWAS and all the countries that were involved, the ones I’ve just mentioned, as well as Senegal, are key to this fight against terrorism.

The second change we agreed on is to make civilians more central to our strategy of combating terrorist groups. The people of the Sahel are the first targets of al-Qaeda and Daesh’s atrocities. They can’t therefore be reduced to the role of victims.

They’re also the first bulwark against those groups, provided we stand by them through a “civilian awakening”, not just through the overly narrow prism of security.

The very aim of the Sahel Alliance, launched in 2017, is to support the population but also, without replacing it, local [people’s] wishes. To date it has brought together more than 25 partners, including soon the United States; 22 billion of financial commitments have been made in this framework, and several thousand projects.

I’d like this Alliance – and this is the direction we’ve collectively decided on – to be the tool for speeding up this paradigm shift: deploying, first of all, civilian and social programmes, according to the needs expressed by regional players, which will prevent the expansion of terrorist groups and bolster the strategies of the national authorities. Only by complementing this preliminary effort can military action, when it’s necessary, be effective.

Third point consistent with this direction: we agreed on the necessity of updating our military presence.

Both in the Sahel and in the Gulf of Guinea, our partners’ expectations have changed. Public sensitivities in the countries of the region have changed too.

We must learn lessons from this and speed up the transformation which we began at the Pau summit in January 2020 and then accelerated a year ago following the N’Djamena summit. Our footprint must be reduced, as we’ve done in northern Mali by closing three of our bases in Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu. It’s about refocusing, at our partners’ request, on where our contribution is expected, still in a supporting role and even more integrated, as we are in Niger, with the region’s armed forces.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll be identifying the support we’ll lend to each of the region’s countries, on the basis of the needs they express. This support may include assistance in terms of training, providing equipment, and indeed supporting their operations against terrorism.

Finally – and this is the fourth priority – we agreed about something obvious: we can’t remain engaged militarily alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden agenda we don’t share. That’s the situation we’re facing in Mali today.

There are things that the fight against terrorism cannot justify. It must not, under the pretext of being an absolute priority, become an exercise in indefinitely retaining power. Nor can it justify an escalation of violence, through the use of mercenaries whose atrocities are documented in the Central African Republic and whose use of force is governed by no rules and no agreements.

In these circumstances, France and its partners who are engaged in counter-terrorist missions, namely the States participating in Task Force Takuba, have taken the decision to withdraw their military presence from Mali. This withdrawal will mean the closure of the Gossi, Menaka and Gao bases. It will be carried out in an orderly fashion with the Malian armed forces and the United Nations mission in Mali. During this period, we’ll maintain our missions of support for MINUSMA.

As regards our European partners’ commitment, it will be maintained and integrated into the reorganized set-up. With the agreement of the Nigerien authorities, European elements will be repositioned alongside the Nigerien armed forces in Mali’s border region.

Finally, our commitment to the Malian people will be maintained through the programmes of the Sahel Alliance, provided that these programmes can’t be misused to finance mercenary activities or terrorism itself.

In the end, through these developments, we’re accelerating a collective process which had already been initiated at the Pau and N’Djamena summits.

The intervention model we have built and conducted since 2013 has achieved considerable results. France and its partners have inflicted defeats on al-Qaeda and Daesh which have changed the nature and projection capability of those two organizations. These results were achieved as part of a brotherhood of arms forged in the liberation of France and 50 years later in the liberation of Mali. France has not forgotten any of these episodes. It has not forgotten any of its 53 soldiers, any of its wounded and their families who sacrificed themselves for this cause and for our two countries, and as I speak to you this morning, my thoughts are with all of our soldiers who died in the Sahel for freedom, and with all of our wounded and their families. My thoughts are also with the six Frenchmen who lost their lives in Niger in August 2020, cut down, along with their Nigerien guides, when they had gone to join the ACTED organization.

At a time when our adversaries are reinventing themselves and changing their strategies, it would have been a mistake to remain static or lose our way in battles which aren’t part of the fight against terrorist organizations.

We’re laying the foundations of a renewed commitment which will allow the Europeans and France to go on playing their role of providing support, training and, in a nutshell, of being a partner. (...)./.

Sahel - Joint declaration on the fight against the terrorist threat and the support to peace and security in the Sahel and West Africa

Paris, 17 February 2022

On the eve of the European Union-African Union Summit, we, Sahelian and neighbouring countries as well as international partners, met to discuss the situation in the Sahel. We remain committed to supporting Mali and its people in their efforts to achieve sustainable peace and stability and to fight terrorist threats in the Sahel region.

We all reaffirm our strong will to continue our partnership with and commitment to the people of Mali over the long term to face all challenges posed by the activity of armed terrorist groups in the Sahel.

We observe and regret that the Malian transitional authorities have not fulfilled their commitments to ECOWAS, supported by the AU, to hold presidential and legislative elections by 27 February 2022. We urge the Malian authorities to complete the transition period and organize free, fair and credible elections. We fully support ongoing efforts of the ECOWAS and the AU for the return of Mali to constitutional order within the earliest time possible.

We strongly encourage the Malian authorities to re-engage in constructive dialogue with ECOWAS and the AU at the highest level, to find a way forward to the benefit of the stability and development of Mali and the wider region.

Due to multiple obstructions by the Malian transitional authorities, Canada and the European States operating alongside Operation Barkhane and within the Task Force Takuba deem that the political, operational and legal conditions are no longer met to effectively continue their current military engagement in the fight against terrorism in Mali and have thereof decided to commence the coordinated withdrawal of their respective military resources dedicated to these operations from Malian territory. In close coordination with neighbouring states, they also expressed their willingness to remain committed in the region in accordance with their respective constitutional procedures.

At the request of their African partners, and based on discussions on future modalities of joint action, they agreed nonetheless to continue their joint action against terrorism in the Sahel region, including in Niger and in the Gulf of Guinea, and have begun political and military consultations with them with the aim to set out the terms for this shared action by June 2022.

We underline MINUSMA’s essential contribution to the stabilization of Mali, the implementation of the peace agreement, the protection of the Malian people, including their human rights, and the creation of a secure environment for humanitarian assistance. We further acknowledge the commitment and the price in terms of human lives paid by troop and police-contributing countries.

Similarly, we recall the substantial contribution of the European Union and its missions to peace and security in the Sahel. We reaffirm the crucial task of strengthening the means and capabilities of the security forces of countries in the region, and thus of increasing the security of local populations, if and where the necessary conditions are met.

Given the impacts of the situation on the Malian population, we all note our longstanding commitment to the people of Mali and our willingness to continue to tackle root causes of insecurity by mobilizing assistance to meet the immediate and longer-term needs of the population, especially the most vulnerable people. We also reaffirm our willingness to continue engaging in dialogue with the Malian transition authorities.

In order to contain the potential geographical expansion of the actions of armed terrorist groups towards the south and west of the region, the international partners indicate their willingness to actively consider extending their support to neighbouring countries in the Gulf of Guinea and West Africa, based on their demands. These actions would support relevant regional initiatives and organisations like the AU, ECOWAS, the G5 Sahel and Accra Initiative and strengthen national strategies to improve resilience as well as living and security conditions in the most vulnerable regions.

We call on the High Representative of the Coalition for the Sahel to swiftly organize a Coalition ministerial meeting, with the aim of assessing the road map adopted in March 2021 and taking these new developments into account.

Signatories:

Belgium; Benin; Canada; Chad; Czech Republic; Denmark; Estonia; France; Germany; Ghana; Hungary; Italy; Ivory Coast; Lithuania; Mauritania; the Netherlands; Niger; Norway; Portugal; Romania; Senegal; Slovakia; Slovenia; Sweden; Togo; European Council; European Commission; Coalition for the Sahel; African Union Commission./.

Published on 21/02/2022

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