Just a week after France officially announced the end of Operation Barkhane, its last major military offensive in the African Sahel, German media suggested that Berlin would take a similar step by withdrawing its forces from Mali to end its military presence in the region, just like Britain and France. The steady increase in the activities of terrorist groups in the region is cited as the main reason for the countries’ decision to withdraw.
According to DPA, Berlin continues to examine the withdrawal of the German army from Mali.
German Deputy Government Spokesperson Wolfgang Buechner officially denied that the German Defense Ministry has taken a final decision on the issue, but his remarks at a press briefing sparked speculation. “Consultations are ongoing in the government,” Buechner said in the statement.
The German TV channel N-TV reported that the Chancellery, the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry had reached a preliminary agreement on the withdrawal of the German army from Mali by the end of 2023 at the latest.
The channel noted that the final decision on the continuation of the German mission in Mali will be discussed in the middle of next week at a meeting of senior politicians, which will bring together Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Foreign Minister Annallina Baerbock and Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht.
Berlin has come under increasing domestic criticism from lawmakers and politicians who believe that the German military presence in the Sahel countries is unnecessary. They are demanding the immediate withdrawal of the remaining forces. Most German troops in the Sahel are currently deployed as part of the United Nations-led MINUSMA mission. According to information obtained by Asharq al-Awsat, Germany is participating in this mission with an estimated 1,200 troops stationed in Mali.
Last February, in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for European countries to ‘get more involved in the fight against Islamic extremism in the African Sahel region’, the German Foreign Ministry announced that Berlin refused to participate in combat missions in the African Sahel. Then German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the German military was already participating in a training mission and a United Nations mission to stabilize Mali. “This is a great endeavor and a dangerous mission. We are not currently considering participating in other missions,” he said.
Earlier this year, the German parliament (Bundestag) issued a resolution that included a kind of ‘conditional withdrawal’ from military missions in the Sahel region. During the debate on the periodic extension of the Bundeswehr’s mandate as part of the MINUSMA mission, it was stated that certain measures should be taken, including the termination of the mission if the care and protection of German soldiers could no longer be adequately guaranteed.
Against the backdrop of recent developments and growing tensions with European powers in the region, German parliamentarians criticized their country’s continued military presence in Mali and neighboring Sahel countries in West Africa. Sevim Dağdelen, a Left Party MP who sits on the Bundestag’s defense and foreign policy committees, said in previous media statements on the military presence in the African Sahel region:
“The deployment of the German armed forces is turning into a disaster because there is neither a rescue chain nor adequate protection from the air. It is irresponsible to continue to leave the German army there.”
There have been repeated disagreements between the army commanders in Mali and the MINUSMA mission. Britain recently announced the withdrawal of its troops from Mali, citing concerns over military cooperation between Mali and Russia.
Last Wednesday, French President Emanuel Macron officially announced the end of his country’s military operation in the Sahel region. The new French strategy in Africa will be ready within six months after consultations in Paris with partners on the continent.
Mali has witnessed three military coups in the last decade and a military transitional government has taken power in the country since the last coup in May 2021. Hostility towards the European presence in general and the French role in particular has increased among residents of Sahel countries, with social media fueling popular anger towards the presence of European forces. Europeans are concerned that with repeated withdrawals from the Sahel region, the area will be left open to Russian influence in Mali. While Westerners accuse the ruling military council in Mali of using the Russian ‘Wagner’ paramilitary group, El-Hader Abdulbaki, a Nigerian political researcher specializing in African affairs, sees these as challenges and problems that threaten the security situation in the Sahel-Saharan region.
“Operations supported by foreign powers, whether under the auspices of the United Nations or under European and French initiatives in particular, have not been able to completely stop security risks and threats due to the lack of real and effective participation of national armies. Moreover, these countries do not have the combat capabilities and skills to deal with real threats and challenges, whether they come from smuggling networks or terrorist groups. In addition to finding a national alternative to foreign forces operating in the Sahel and West Africa, the level of local security coordination between the countries involved in the security of the region should be increased.”
On the other hand, Baha Mahmoud, a researcher on European affairs at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, described the expected withdrawal of German forces, and before that French and British forces, as a ‘logical step’.
“France is the main power with major interests in West Africa. Europe’s conflict of interest has led to the disintegration of any joint operation with the Sahel countries. Therefore, after the withdrawal of France, which has the strongest and largest military presence, it is difficult for Germany, which has a symbolic military presence and is not linked to the big interests in the Sahel, to carry the burden.”
Commenting on the possibility of creating a joint European force that could be present in the region in the first instance to limit the steps of some other powers, such as Russia and Turkey, Mahmoud said:
“Given the deep divisions, sometimes even conflicts, over networks of interests in many regions, whether within Europe or in Africa and the Middle East, the ability of Europeans to take any unified action is not possible at the moment. The Russian presence in the Sahel and West Africa has become a reality and is even welcomed by several African powers. This is because the Russians and the Chinese do not have a colonial history that angers the peoples of that region, and the Russian support through the Wagner company does not go through the political and military complications, including human rights, that European powers impose when dealing with African countries. Turkey is expanding in the region, both through an active religious role and a heavy diplomatic and commercial presence. The number of Turkish diplomatic missions in Africa has increased from 12 a few years ago to 46 today.”