France is to end its years-long anti-terror mission targeting Islamists in the Sahel region of West Africa, French President Emmanuel Macron announced Thursday.
However, the mission, known as Operation Barkhane, will be replaced by a more international effort, Macron told a press conference ahead of the G7 summit. He added that additional details would be announced “in the weeks to come.”
France currently has 5,100 troops in the region in connection with Operation Barkhane, operating across Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, according to the French Ministry of Defense.
Despite their efforts, Islamist forces continue to provoke instability in the region, almost a decade after French troops were first deployed in Mali to contain their advances. Meanwhile, in France, Operation Barkhane is increasingly seen as a long-running drain on resources with no clear end in sight.
Macron said France would now consult with its American and European partners and initiate a “profound transformation” of the French military presence in the Sahel.
“This transformation will translate into a model change” with a “new framework” which means “the end of Barkhane as an external operation, to allow for an operation of support and cooperation with armies in the countries of the [Sahel] region that ask for it,” Macron said.
“The time has come. The continuation of our commitment in the Sahel cannot be in the same way. We are going, with our partners by our side but also with countries in the region (…) to draw conclusions on what worked (…) and what didn’t.”
Operation Barkhane would be replaced by “a military operation and an international alliance, associating countries in the region with all our partners, strictly limited to the fight against terrorism,” Macron said.
The Takuba Task Force – the European military task force led by France which advises, assists and accompanies Malian Armed Forces in the Sahel – will be central to the effort, he said. The French army would constitute the “backbone” of that force, completed by special forces from European and partner countries in the region, he added.
“The long-term presence of France in external operations cannot be a substitute to the return of the State and services of the State to the political stability and choice of sovereign states” in the region, Macron said.
“We cannot secure zones that fall back into instability because states decide not to take their own responsibility. It’s impossible,” he said.
At Mali’s request, France – the former colonial power – launched Operation Serval, a United Nations-sanctioned ground and air operation against Islamist militants, in January 2013. The plan was to oust the jihadists and prevent them from moving on to the capital, Bamako.
The UN deployed a peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, and the French mission was succeeded in August 2014 by Operation Barkhane, a broader French anti-terror mission targeting Islamists in the Sahel.
In recent months, the French government has become frustrated with the political turmoil in Mali, where a new leader was declared late last month following the second coup in less than a year.
In a May 29 interview with French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, Macron threatened to pull French troops out of Mali if the country lurched toward radical Islamism.