President Emmanuel Macron heads to Mali on Sunday to throw France’s weight behind a new West African military force he hopes will lay the basis for an exit strategy for its own troops; but its prospects for success look slim.
Mali is hosting a heads of state summit with Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania – known as the G5 Sahel – who could ultimately deploy thousands of troops into the vast, arid Sahel region that remains a breeding ground for militants and traffickers that Paris considers a threat to Europe.
Four years after intervening in its former colony to ward off a jihadist offensive, there is no sign of France withdrawing its 4,000-strong regional Barkhane contingent as they, alongside 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers, struggle to stabilise Mali and implement peace accords.
“It’s not wrong to say that it’s part of an exit plan because the Barkhane mission is not intended to be there for ever, but it’s hard to see how we could draw down soon,” said a senior French diplomat.
“We need a long-term multilateral strategy so that we’re less exposed. The time of doing everything alone in West Africa is over.”
The force endorsed by the U.N. aims to initially establish specially-trained units by the end of the year, which would work with French forces where jihadist groups are known to operate .
But it faces headwinds before it even becomes operational, with questions over financing, manpower and equipment.
“France had an exit strategy in mind when it spearheaded the new force and wanted as much multilateral funding as possible,” said Vincent Rouget, West Africa analyst at Control Risks.
“They don’t have the option that they had in CAR (Central African Republic) to just leave. The fact that Macron is in Bamako twice in a month really shows he is pushing his whole weight behind it.”
Experts and officials question the merits of a mission that could muddy the picture in an area where there are already a plethora of military operations and there is a risk of diverting money away from local governance.
“By putting the emphasis on setting up a new autonomous force with mostly external financing the risk is that it might distract from the absolute necessity of consolidating the states in all their dimensions,” said Yabi Gilles, founder of WATHI, a citizen think tank of West Africa.
French officials insist that their efforts will not just focus on security aspects. Macron pledged in May to ensure unfulfilled development promises from Paris and the wider international community would materialise.