The Elysée focuses the new operation on preventing the advance of jihadist groups along Lake Chad and in the Gulf of Guinea

France outlines its new strategy in the Sahel after withdrawing from Mali

AFP / ETAT MAJOR DES ARMEES - This photograph taken on 11 August 2022 and released by the General Staff of the Armed Forces shows soldiers of the French military mission in the Sahel known as "Barkhane" folding a French flag at an undisclosed military installation, amid the French military withdrawal with troops leaving the last bases in Mali

Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division, was the last American soldier to leave Afghanistan in August 2021. His green-tinted image, taken through a night vision scope as he climbed steadily into the C-17 aircraft that would return him home, was etched in the minds of a generation. It symbolised the end of an era. The last French soldier to leave Mali was Captain Yann, in charge of locking up the military base at Gao, from where the last contingent of Operation Barkhane left Mali.

"Today, at 13:00 hours, the last detachment of the Barkhane force present on Malian soil crossed the border between Mali and Niger. It came from the operational platform in the Gao desert, which was transferred to the Malian Armed Forces this morning". This was the opening line of the communiqué issued on Monday by the French army's general staff. It was official. Paris was finally leaving the heart of the Sahel, the most important enclave for security in the region, "in less than six months and after nine years of presence". Only a week after the German forces. 

The withdrawal, which began in February, was scheduled to be completed by the end of August. French troops have been relinquishing the military bases of Tessalit, Kidal, Timbuktu and Gossi, used by France since its arrival in 2013. At that time, Operation Serval deployed by former French president François Hollande prevented the Malian state from falling into the hands of the insurgents. The jihadists imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law in the conquered regions. For this reason, among others, the French soldiers were received as heroes. This is a far cry from the current climate.

Francia Mali

The withdrawal from Mali marks the end of Operation Barkhane, or at least the end of the operation as it is known. In its communiqué, the French General Staff defines it as a "profound transformation". Launched in 2014, Serval's successor military mission focused on reducing the jihadist threat at the regional level. At its peak, Barkhane had a contingent of more than 5,000 troops, spread across Paris' five Sahelian allies: Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania. All had been French colonies. 

The concatenation of mistakes precipitated terrorist groups to spread throughout the region, endangering several states. Despite partnering with other European countries to, in effect, 'Europeanise' security in the Sahel, Europe's southern border, and relying on Western and international operatives such as the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA), France proved unable to mitigate jihadist proliferation. Its presence did not translate into widespread improvements, and it soon came to be interpreted by part of public opinion as an element of occupation with colonialist reminiscences. 


Emmanuel Macron, aware of Barkhane's limitations and at odds with the military coup junta in Bamako - the protagonist of two consecutive uprisings in the space of nine months - opted for a reorganisation of forces in the region. It reduced the number of soldiers by half. Mali's Transitional Military Council (CMT), commanded by Colonel Assimi Goita, seized the opportunity to expel any French vestige from the country, which was opposed to the consolidation of the new military authority in power, using the strong anti-French sentiment that was boiling over to its advantage.

A clash of accusations

Members of Yerewolo, a Malian civilian platform close to the ruling military junta, welcomed the departure of the French troops in Bamako. "It is quite logical that the Malian people should mobilise to demand the departure of this occupying force. But there is no hatred, no anti-French feelings, nothing like that," declared the organisation's leader, Adama Ben Diarra. The Malian capital of more than 2.5 million inhabitants is witnessing an escalation of the security situation. In June and July there have been as many as 15 attacks perpetrated by jihadist groups. The closest attack occurred just over 9 kilometres away.

Macron Benin

As a smokescreen, Mali's Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told the UN Security Council that Mali "reserves the right to self-defence" in the face of harassment by French troops. The diplomat denounced multiple airspace violations, and accused French troops of espionage activities. "There have been more than 50 flagrant violations of airspace so far this year," he said. The military junta accuses France of collaborating with jihadists by providing arms, ammunition and information. A serious accusation to which the French General Staff has responded: "Obviously, France has never supported, directly or indirectly, these terrorist groups, which remain its designated enemies throughout the world," the French ministry replied.

"France liberated many Malian cities that had fallen into the hands of terrorists, who imposed their reign of terror - prohibition of education, assassinations, corporal punishment - especially in Timbuktu and Gao," the French institution defended itself on Twitter, where it made a fiery defence of its operation. There was no trace of self-criticism, but rather blamed the failure of the operation on the Malian military, which had hired the services of the Wagner group.

German troops witnessed on Monday how dozens of Russian mercenaries landed at Gao airport in northern Mali, the last enclave left behind by the French authorities. On the same day, the French had officially ended their operations. France is now outlining its new counter-terrorism strategy in Lake Chad and the Gulf of Guinea, relying on its main partners: Chad and Niger. The aim is to avoid making the same mistakes that led to Barkhane's failure.