The Head of State is going to a military base in eastern France this Wednesday afternoon. While the context has become tense in the Sahel, Emmanuel Macron has still not clarified France’s strategy in the region, particularly in Mali. If there are silences that make a lot of noise, it is the case of that of the Head of State, widely commented on by the military leaders who scrutinize the slightest word, in public as in private, to detect a sign . That of an arbitration awaited for several weeks now on the question of Mali.
All red lines crossed
Emmanuel Macron will go this afternoon to Haguenau, in the Haut-Rhin, to the Oberhoffen military camp. This is the first visit of the year by the Head of State to an army base. It intervenes in a very tense context in Mali where all the red lines laid down by France have been crossed: the presence of mercenaries from the Russian private security group Wagner, the postponement of the elections and a junta in power which is multiplying outrageous positions on the regard to France.
It must be recognized that French diplomacy, which nevertheless succeeded in involving European diplomacy, failed to make Bamako bend. On the contrary, demonstrations last Friday in support of the junta and against the sanctions taken by the Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sometimes turned into anti-French slogans. Under these conditions, the question of the definitive departure of the Barkhane force arises.
A departure and several constraints
For the time being, Emmanuel Macron remains publicly very discreet. A beginning of withdrawal is in progress since half of the soldiers of the Barkhane force will return to Paris. The question that is openly asked today in the corridors of Balard is that of the definitive departure from Mali. This poses three constraints. First, leaving Gao, the epicenter of military logistics in the Sahel, will not be done in three days. According to several sources, it takes between four and six months.
Then, it is out of the question to let go of Burkina Faso or Niger, two neighboring countries which are also fighting jihadists in the desert. The problem is that the European Takuba force that France would like to see rise to power is not welcome, at least not in Niger, which has already made it known that it does not want it. According to our information, the Quai d’Orsay’s “Monsieur Afrique” met Niger’s new ambassador in early January to try, among other things, to redirect Niger’s position.
The third difficulty concerns the terrorist groups which most certainly will try to regain ground against Wagner’s mercenaries. A departure from Afghanistan, while France takes over the presidency of the Council of the European Union, would be a very bad message. Especially since Emmanuel Macron has continued for five years to promote the Europe of Defense.
Differences of opinion within the Malian armed forces themselves
While we wait in Paris for the arbitration of the President of the Republic, the fighting on the ground continues. According to our information, just in the past five days, “Barkhane has carried out four operations in the three-border region, including two with the European Takuba force”, reports a high-ranking officer. Terrorists were neutralized by drone strikes, combat helicopters were engaged as well as a hundred Malian soldiers.
The French are concerned about associating the Malian armed forces. More than ever in order to win back hearts because, according to our information, dissension is beginning to arise in the Malian ranks. Some soldiers would believe that the alliance between Wagner’s mercenaries and the junta was hidden from them. These differences of opinion within the Malian armed forces themselves could, in the absence of a clear operational victory in the weeks to come, “turn into discontent”, we see from Paris.
The Russian private security group Wagner now has, according to military intelligence, more than 450 men on site. The bulk of the troops have moved to the Mopti region in the center of the country and Russian instructors are training Malians to fly four Mi-171 helicopters delivered on September 30 by Moscow. The French services also confirm the very strong interest of the Russians in exploiting the mines in the south and south-east of Mali.