Saturday in Mali, two soldiers of the anti-jihadist Barkhane force, including a woman, died in the explosion of an artisanal device (IED) when their vehicle passed, after the death of three soldiers on Monday in similar circumstances. These deaths bring to 50 the number of French soldiers killed in the Sahel since the start of their intervention in 2013.
On the same day, 100 people were killed in the attack on two villages in western Niger, one of the worst massacres of civilians in the region.
These human losses come to darken the beginning of 2021 which should have been the occasion, one year after the Pau summit which brought together the heads of state of France and five Sahelian countries, to draw up an encouraging assessment: undeniable tactical successes against the Islamic State group. in the great Sahara (EIGS), elimination of important jihadist leaders and reinforced cooperation with the local armies which have taken part in recent months in vast anti-jihadist operations.
Despite a slower start than initially expected, Paris is also relying heavily on the deployment of elite European units within the new Takuba force, responsible for accompanying the Malian army in combat.
France intends to announce the withdrawal of 600 soldiers, sent to reinforce Barkhane in January 2020, bringing to 5,100 the French troops in the Sahel.
“Reinforcement by definition is temporary”, Armed Minister Florence Parly explained on Monday in an interview with the daily Le Parisien, confirming information disclosed in November by AFP. This decision should be formalized at the next summit between France and the G5 Sahel countries, in February in N’Djamena.
Leave “without losing face”
According to corroborating sources, the Elysee would like to reduce Barkhane’s staff even further by the presidential election of 2022. A nagging question at a time when the armies warn about the need to prepare for other harsher conflicts on the world stage, and while some voices within the political class question the relevance of this long and costly commitment, which is struggling to be followed by political effects on the ground.
“War in Mali: until when?”, wondered Monday the radical left party La France Insoumise.
“So far the French have not fundamentally questioned France’s commitment to the Sahel. But we must be very vigilant. Public opinion can turn around very quickly,” a government source recently told AFP.
“The more we help Mali, the more it sinks. We have the impression of returning to the situation of 2012 since the army has regained power, the country remains cut in two and the State is still not present North”, slice Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, of the Research Institute for Development (IRD). Gold “the longer you stay, the more complicated it becomes to leave, he believes. The real question beyond the death toll is how to disengage without losing face. “
It remains to be seen whether these plans for the gradual reduction of Barkhane – while maintaining the strength of the special forces – will not be temporarily thwarted by the 5 new French deaths in two successive attacks, the first of which was claimed by the Group of Support for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
The intense military effort directed against the EIGS, designated as a priority enemy at the top of Pau, has helped to strengthen this other jihadist alliance active in the region.
To the point that, for the commander of Barkhane, General Marc Conruyt, the GSIM “is today the most dangerous enemy for Mali and the international forces”. A diagnosis confirmed by a source close to the matter, according to whom the organization is “more structured and more powerful than ever”.
“By managing to kill five of our soldiers in a few days, the enemy has succeeded in reintroducing doubt. We must now re-attack hard to regain political leeway.”, says Colonel Michel Goya, military historian, on his blog “the way of the sword”.