At the end of this titanic withdrawal, France will keep 2,500 soldiers in the Sahel, including more than a thousand men in Niger.
Dozens of containers, armored vehicles as far as the eye can see on the sides, an incessant ballet of forklifts: it is the excitement on the French military base (BAP) in Niamey, in Niger, a transit point for equipment leaving Mali that France must leave within a few weeks.
Exit the vast anti-jihadist operations long carried out in the Sahelian sands by French soldiers. Today, “this disengagement from Mali is the biggest of our missions”explains the deputy chief of operations of the Barkhane force, Colonel Hubert Beaudoin.
“It’s a gigantic maneuver”, adds Commander Thierry (the majority of French soldiers can only be mentioned by their first name for security reasons, editor’s note), conductor of all logistical movements on the BAP. Two to three air convoys per day and two to three road convoys per week link the base in Gao, Mali, to that in Niamey.
Pushed out by a hostile Malian junta, the French began their withdrawal in February after nine years of uninterrupted presence to fight against the jihadists. After Gossi and Menaka, the soldiers are in the process of leaving their last hold in Mali in August. In total, France must leave Mali some 4,000 containers and a thousand vehicles, including hundreds of armored vehicles.
Colonel Laurent Grebil, logistics manager for Operation Barkhane, has already experienced a theater outing ten years ago in Afghanistan. Nevertheless “Kapisa (north-east) was the size of a French department. Here, the complexity of the maneuver comes from the distances to be covered and the volume of equipment and men to get out in a compressed time”, he comments. Next, “it will take a little less than a year to bring everything back to France”.
In the parking lot of the transit zone of the French military airport, Fenwicks move pallets loaded with various materials: spare parts, camp beds, electrical equipment, fridges…
Along the dusty road that criss-crosses the right-of-way, soldiers doze on camp beds, under khaki tarpaulins pulled between two armored vehicles. Arrived the day before an escort mission of several dozen civilian vehicles from Gao, the legionnaires will leave this night in the opposite direction. A frantic pace imposed by the short deadlines set by the Elysée: France must have left Mali by the end of the summer.
The road that connects the cities of Gao and Niamey, nearly 500 kilometers apart, crosses the semi-desert area known as the three borders, reputed to serve as a refuge for jihadist groups affiliated with the Islamic State.
In this region of Liptako, “Armed terrorist groups have been avoiding Barkhane for several months. However, we remain on our guard”, explains Barkhane’s Deputy Chief of Operations. A final symbolic coup is not to be excluded to mark the spirits, warns Lieutenant-Colonel Eric, of the intelligence unit of Barkhane.
“France leaving, a real security vacuum will be created, everyone will try to occupy the space, and one of the means of occupying at least the space of perceptions would be to strike a blow at us. In any operation, that whether small or large, the disengagement phase is always the most dangerous”argues the officer.
This withdrawal comes in the midst of an outbreak of violence in the Sahel. More than 2,000 civilians have been killed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since the start of the year, already more than the 2,021 recorded for the whole of 2021, according to AFP calculations based on a compilation of the specialized NGO Acled.
On the scorched tarmac, two Mirage 2000D fighter jets armed with GBU bombs rev up their engines, ready to take off. “We are going to support a convoy in the part identified as the most at risk of the route. The noise of the planes has a deterrent effect on armed groups”, explains Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre-Henri, commander of the hunting detachment. The base also has six armed drones to ensure the safety of convoys from the sky.
The rainy season which has just begun poses an additional challenge. “Unlike military vehicles, civilian trucks are subject to the vagaries of the weather because they cannot leave paved roads” on pain of getting bogged down, comments Lieutenant-Colonel Samir, head of the joint operations center (COIA) of Barkhane, in N’Djamena. In addition, “Rain can ground planes and blind drones”depriving the convoys of their guardian angels, he notes.
At the end of this titanic withdrawal, only 2,500 soldiers will be maintained in the Sahel against more than 5,000 two years ago. France will notably keep more than a thousand men in Niger, where a battle group will continue to work in partnership with the Nigerien forces.
But the over-regime facing the BAP of Niamey will not last, assures its commander, Colonel Loïc Mandereau. “This base is not intended to grow. We are not transferring Gao to Niamey”, he insists. The time is at discretion, while the Niger authorities have signified their refusal to see the French presence become denser on their territory.
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France continues to withdraw its tanks, planes and drones from Mali
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