Reader question: Why are French soldiers in Mali?

Reader question: Opération Barkhane is all over French news again, but can someone explain to me why French soldiers were in Mali in the first place?

Tensions between France and Mali have been growing since French President Emmanuel Macron decided in June to gradually disengage the French soldiers from operations in Mali.

Mali, in West Africa, is one of the 25 poorest countries in the world. It was a French colony up until 1960 and has been at war with Salafist jihadist groups since 2012.

Mali counted 1,000 to 1,400 terrorist fighters out of the 2,000 estimated in Sahel – the region of North Africa which includes countries such as Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – and was labelled an “epicentre of international terrorism” by Macron. 

Since 2013, 5,100 soldiers from the French army have been fighting against armed groups linked to Al-Qaida or the Islamic State in Sahel, a military engagement known as Opération Barkhane.

Since the beginning of the operation, 52 French soldiers have died, about 8,000 civilians have been killed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso and 2 million were displaced by the fighting.

In June of this year, after eight years in the region, the French government decided that the army would progressively leave the country.

By December 2021, French soldiers will have left the most northern bases of Mali, and by 2023, only 3,000 should remain in the region. 

Despite Barkhane’s few victories, Islamist groups are also making progress and countries in the Gulf of Guinea like the Ivory Coast, Togo or Benin, are also threatened.

The expensive military undertaking has also become increasingly unpopular with the public in France.

But President’s Macron decision to withdraw part of France’s army doesn’t mean a complete end to the involvement of French soldiers in Mali. The Malian army is getting help from the Takuba force which gathers 600 soldiers from various European countries, and of which half are French. 

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