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Withdrawal of French Troops from Mali

Ms Sindhu Dinesh is a Research Analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 24, 2022

    At the request of the then interim government led by President Dioncounda Traore, France militarily intervened in Mali in 2013, by launching Operation Serval. The operation was authorised by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).1 The imperatives that drove the French decision included the need to safeguard its economic investments (uranium mining fields in neighbouring Niger), political interests (long-standing close relationship with Mali, Francophone African countries and international obligations as a UNSC permanent member), and security interests (protection of the French diaspora in the region and to prevent the threat of an Islamist takeover).2 Operation Serval was successful in pushing back the rebels to the northern part of Mali. Owing to the spread of these outfits to the neighbouring regions, Operation Barkhane, a counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel region, was launched in August 2014.

    Over the years, international missions and regional players have made tremendous efforts to counter the terrorist threat and security challenges. International missions included the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), instituted in 2013 and the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali), launched in February 2013. Regional efforts included the G5 Sahel Joint Force launched in 2017—comprising Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The European Special Task Force ‘Operation Takuba’ was also established in March 2020.

    Despite such military interventions over the past decade, there has not been much improvement in Mali’s security condition. Apart from being the epicenter of terrorist, jihadist and insurgency activity in the Sahel, Mali also faces threats from vigilantes and communal violence between the farming and herding communities, and is a hub for organised crime and illegal activities like smuggling and drug trafficking. Apart from political instability and the worsening security situation, the Covid-19 pandemic has also weakened the Malian economy, one of the poorest countries in the world.3 The country is dealing with high rates of poverty and unemployment and is heavily dependent on gold exports and oil imports.

    Triggering Factors for French Withdrawal

    Mali is currently being governed by a transition government led by Col Assimi Goïta, who led two coups in August 2020 and May 2021, with Choguel Kokalla Maïga as the prime minister.4

    The military coups exacerbated tensions between France and Mali. France decided in June 2021 to unilaterally end its latest military Operation Barkhane. Later in February 2022, France and its allies announced a ‘coordinated withdrawal’ of their forces due to ‘multiple obstructions’ by the military-led government.5

    The triggering factors were the rising tensions and differences with the Junta, delay in elections and the deterioration of bilateral ties. While announcing the decision to withdraw, President Emmanuel Macron stated that “we cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de-facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share”.6 The decision of the military government in January 2022 to postpone elections to 2026, the ban on the Danish contingent of Operation Takuba, expelling of the French Ambassador and entry of the Russian-based Wagner Group at the end of 2021 as a security provider, deteriorated the bilateral relationship and fueled the decision on troop withdrawal.

    There are additional geopolitical, geostrategic, and geo-economic imperatives underlying the French withdrawal.

    Geopolitical Imperatives:France has become increasingly unpopular among its former colonies in Africa. There has been a growing anti-French sentiment, especially in Mali. The local population has been protesting against the nearly decade-long foreign military presence by the former colonial power, that has yielded limited results. In December 2021, local protestors blocked a convoy of French troops repeatedly at multiple instances as it crossed from Burkina Faso and Niger towards Mali.7

    Geostrategic Imperatives: With French presidential elections scheduled in April 2022, France was cautious of the execution of its withdrawal. The French government took measures to avoid comparisons with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Prior to the announcement, it held a meeting with the G5 Sahel leaders (except Mali and Burkina Faso due to the Junta rule) and portrayed the exit as a “coordinated withdrawal”.8 At home, there has been a growing domestic public dissatisfaction with France’s prolonged military involvement in Mali.9 Moreover, of the 53 French soldiers killed in Operation Barkhane, 48 had died in Mali.

    Geo-economic Imperatives:France has withdrawn its troops only from Mali and not from the extended region. The troops are being re-deployed to Niger, giving France a base to continue its commitment to conduct anti-terrorist operations in Sahel and overlook its economic investments.10 As a country dependent on nuclear energy for electricity, French companies like Areva have huge investments in the uranium fields in Niger.11 Besides, the operation was proving to be costly for France, which was spending about one billion Euros (US$ 1.14 billion).12 By June 2022, France has handed over its military bases at Tessalit, Kidal, Timbuktu, Gossi and Menaka. The last withdrawal will be from the military base in Gao which would be returned to Malian forces “at the end of the summer”.13

    Implications for Mali and the Region

    The withdrawal of the French troops creates a security and political vacuum in the region and exacerbates the current security challenges.

    Internal Implications: Mali has been left vulnerable to increased jihadist activity and militancy. The security crisis will continue to escalate with terrorist groups consolidating and setting up safe havens in northern parts of Mali. On the other hand, since the withdrawal of French troops and its allies indicates the withdrawal of foreign presence in the country, perhaps the insurgency elements and jihadist outfits would now be willing to negotiate with the Malian authorities. The withdrawal of foreign troops including the MINUSMA was one of the primary demands of these outfits as they perceived these forces to be an interference in the internal affairs of Mali, signifying an inability on the part of the government to handle its own matters.14

    Additionally, there will be challenges in routing and distributing the developmental and humanitarian aid that comes into the country. French presence was complementing the efforts of MINUSMA. The mission was dependent on the logistical support and medical infrastructure of Operation Barkhane. MINUSMA Peacekeepers are equipped to protect civilians from attacks by armed groups and authorised to counter asymmetric threats but are not authorised to engage in counter-terrorism activities.15

    The security and political vacuum created in Mali with the exit of France is being filled by external players like Russia. Reports indicate that mercenaries from the Wagner group are already stationed in Mali and Russia has given military equipment like combat helicopters and others to Mali.16 Mali has renounced a military cooperation agreement with France and has withdrawn from the G5 Sahel Force. These developments isolate Mali and raise concerns on the success of regional efforts to fight against terrorism in Sahel.

    External Implications: In the short-term, the French withdrawal would perhaps cause the security situation in Mali to escalate out of control. There could be an increase in transnational and cross-border terrorist attacks. Furthermore, the developments pose a security threat to countries south of the Sahel. These include the littoral countries like Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, Togo and others. There has been growing concern about the spillover of jihadi activities towards the Gulf of Guinea.

    Macron, while announcing the troop withdrawal, had pointed out that

    Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group have made the Sahel region of West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea nations ‘a priority for their strategy of expansion’. They are investing there and exploiting local causes in order to better pursue their global and regional agenda.17

    Côte d'Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara warned that the withdrawal would create a political vacuum and pledged to take steps to enhance border protection.18

    Another challenge is the political instability in the West Africa region. The region has witnessed three coups within a year, in Chad (April 2021), Mali (May 2021) and Burkina Faso (January 2022). Political instability would embolden the terrorist outfits who already control large territories in the region. Additionally, there has been an increase in the displacement and migration of people towards neighbouring countries, mostly northern Africa. Regional governments would need to prepare for the challenge of managing this influx.


    The French withdrawal from Mali has created a security vacuum in the region. The security situation will likely deteriorate further, rendering Mali vulnerable to an increase in terrorist attacks. The efforts of MINUSMA would also be impacted. Apart from the challenge of tackling the increase in migration to neighbouring countries, the likelihood of the spread of terrorist threat to the littoral countries south of the Sahel has been heightened.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.