GAO, MALI/WASHINGTON – France’s recent decision to close some of its military bases and reduce the number of its troops in Mali has sparked mixed reaction from the local population.
Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that his country would start closing three military bases in northern Mali by the end of 2021.
“These closures will start in the second half of 2021 and be completed by early 2022,” Macron said at a press conference following a summit with the leaders of the G5 Sahel countries, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.
French forces have been deployed in Mali since 2013 as part of its effort in the fight against jihadist groups in the country’s north. France’s Operation Serval, later changed to Operation Barkhane, has since expanded to include other countries in the restive Sahel region.
“Our enemies have abandoned their territorial ambitions in favor of spreading their threat not only across the Sahel, but across all of West Africa,” the French president said.
France would reduce its forces to 2,500 to 3,000 troops. There are currently 5,000 French troops in the region.
Speaking to VOA, some Malian residents expressed their disappointment at France’s decision to reduce its military presence in the country.
“I am not for their departure,” said one resident from the city of Gao, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution from jihadist groups active in the region.
Gao was captured by militant groups in 2012. During a campaign the following year, the city was recaptured by French forces.
“They should keep troops to help our Malian troops that are deployed here,” the resident told VOA.
Another resident of Gao said most people of her region “want the French to stay here, because they are doing a huge service to the population, such as emergency management and providing security for us and our properties.”
Another female resident of the city said the departure of France’s Barkhane forces from parts of Mali would exacerbate the security situation in the entire country.
“Right now, we sleep in peace. But if Barkhane ever leaves, then we should leave this place as well,” she told VOA. “There is nothing else on which we can rely after Barkhane’s departure. They assist the population in many areas, and so their departure would cause us a lot of trouble.”
Other residents, however, believe the time has come for French troops to leave their country.
“I believe the French forces must go home, because they have been unable to accomplish what was expected from them,” said one resident from a town near Mali’s border with Niger.
“At their arrival, we thought they would provide security to our villages and cities, but we have realized that the situation in worsening,” he added.
Another resident, who also asked to remain anonymous, told VOA that most Malians wish to see all French troops leave Mali.
“We will take care of this crisis among ourselves. We trust the Malian armed forces. Malians are very tired of this situation,” he said. “There is all kind of military troop presence in Mali, but the situation is not improving at all.”
During last week’s press conference, the French president insisted that his decision to reduce the number of troops in Mali does not mean his country would abandon its African partners in the battle against militants linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State terror groups.
Some analysts say Operation Barkhane has played a crucial role on the ground in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in Mali, and in the provision of intelligence and logistics across the Sahel.
“I expect that even with the end of Operation Barkhane, quite a bit of counterterrorism efforts will continue to focus on the area where the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger meet,” said Daniel Eizenga, a Research Fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.
He said military cooperation between the French and the regional armed forces, namely those of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, has significantly enhanced the capacity of those forces to react quickly on the ground, reducing the threats and risks taken by their soldiers and improving their operational effectiveness.
“Without joint operations, intelligence and logistics support, the armed forces will face a more challenging struggle against the militant Islamist groups operating in the region,” Eizenga told VOA.
With reducing troops and bases in Mali, France plans to build its presence into a European task force named Takuba, which has been established as a training operation for Mali.
“France continues to be a military reality in the region,” said Bakary Sambe, director of Timbuktu Institute for Peace Studies in Dakar, Senegal.
“France has no interest in removing its forces from the Sahel, it’s just that it’s changing its overall counterterrorism strategy in the broader region,” he told VOA in a phone interview.
With increased militant attacks in Burkina Faso, Sambe said, Islamist groups have been trying to expand their presence in other countries in West Africa, including Ivory Coast.
“Terrorist groups in the Sahel are no longer staying in their traditional strongholds. They keep moving to expand their criminal networks and economic activities,” he said.
VOA French Service’s Modibo Dembele contributed to this story from Washington.