Why has France been at war for a decade in the West African desert?

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France and military allies are leaving Mali after using it for almost a decade as a base for fighting Islamist insurgents who continue to wreak havoc and control swathes of territory around West Africa.


Islamists including al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM hijacked a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali in 2012. The fighters were pushed back by French forces but regrouped and in 2015 unleashed violence in north and central Mali.

In 2017, AQIM merged with other jihadist groups to form Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM). Around 2015, another group formed and allied itself to Islamic State, becoming Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

The groups now control territory in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, operating across an area bigger than Germany.


The insurgents have been attacking some of the world’s poorest communities, often killing dozens of civilians or soldiers at a time. Thousands have died and over 2 million have been uprooted from their homes. The violence has rocked the nations of the Sahel region but not produced a parallel state as occurred with Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq.

In areas under the militants’ control, thousands of schools have shut, health workers cannot reach patients and malnutrition among infants is rising, aid groups say. Local economies that used to rely on cattle herding and farming have collapsed.


Former colonial power France has led the fight, with around 2,400 troops in Mali. The United States has an 800-strong force operating out of Niger, and a base that deploys armed drones. Germany and Italy also have troops in Niger. A host of European countries joined the Takuba special forces mission, also led by France, but that will now be wound down.

An African force called the G5 Sahel, with troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, has also deployed.


French military forces killed much of ISGS’s top brass, including its leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, last year. International forces have trained local armies, provided backup in battle and supported the United Nations’ beleaguered Malian peacekeeping mission.

But the cost is enormous. France spends about 1 billion euros ($1.14 billion) a year on its Sahel mission. Fifty-nine French soldiers have been killed. And mistakes have fuelled anti-French sentiment: a French air strike last year killed 19 unarmed civilians at a wedding in central Mali, United Nations investigators said, though France denied this.

Meanwhile, attacks by insurgents continue unabated, weakening democratically elected governments unable to deal with the threat. Military juntas have snatched power in Mali and Burkina Faso since 2020, with popular support.

($1 = 0.8799 euros)

Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

PHOTO – French soldiers patrol in the town of Diabaly, Mali. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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