France-G5 Sahel leaders meet to discuss departure of French troops

·2-min read

This Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron will host a summit with his counterparts from Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger - the G5 Sahel - with a view to discussing the implications of the imminent reduction of numbers and eventual departure of French troops from the troubled region.

For most of the past decade, France has been the dominent military power in the fight against islamic jihadists in the Sahel region.

Last month, President Macron announced that the Barkhane operation, which has been involved in peace-keeping, policing and direct combat against the sub-Saharan zone's various islamist groups, will soon see a reduction of troop numbers from the current level of 5,100 men.

French regional bases will be closed as troop numbers decline. And the fight against islamic terrorism will be undertaken by a broader alliance of troops from Europe.

France still committed to fighting jihadists

The French Defence Minister, Florence Parly, admits that the precise military future of the Sahel region remains to be defined.

"We are not yet in a position to announce the general principles of the territorial reorganisation," she recently told a press conference.

"This change is not, however, the end of French commitment in the region, nor does it mean we are slowing down our efforts against terrorism," the minister stressed.

What is currently known is that Barkhane troop numbers will be reduced by half, to 2,500, by 2023. The élite commando units in the operation known as "Sabre" will remain active in the region, with the job of pursuing jihadist leaders.

Civilian and local army losses to jihadist attacks remain at an unacceptably high level, according to the French army chief-of-staff, General François Lecointre.

"Islamic terrorism continues to spread, to establish local bases, to reach a wider population," France's top soldier said last month. "It's a worrying development."

Political instability among G5 members

Adding to those worries is the unstable political climate in at least two of the G5 nations.

Chad recently lost Idriss Déby Itno, the man who ruled the country for three decades, in combat against northern rebels. He has since been replaced by his son, himself part of the military.

Mali has seen two military coups in nine months, and is currently ruled by the soldier who, earlier this summer, arrested both the president and prime minister.

General Lecointre has admitted to a French Senate commission that political instability in both Mali and Chad have complicated French operations in the Sahel.

"The security situation remains unresolved," he told the French upper house, "but that is as much a political problem as it is a military one."

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