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Will France’s withdrawal from Mali see a rise in Russian influence in the region?

France’s imminent military withdrawal from Mali has echoes of the West’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan last year, said François Brousseau in Le Devoir (Montreal). Paris first sent troops to Mali in 2013 to defeat jihadists threatening to take over the west African nation; but the mission turned into a nine-year struggle against the militants. Now a diplomatic breakdown between France and the military junta that overthrew Mali’s elected government in 2020 has led President Macron to announce that his 2,400 troops there will be gone by the summer.

Paris claims that the exit is not a defeat; but the situation in the Sahel region suggests things have hardly been going well. The Sahel, the semi-arid swathe south of the Sahara, is “teeming” with Islamist militants; a “fierce turf war” has been raging between Islamic State-leaning factions and al-Qa’eda. Inter-ethnic conflicts are adding to the chaos. Some 20,000 people have been killed in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger since 2015. Yet now, France is “leaving Mali on its own” – fearing that it would be “kicked out” if it stayed.

While the pullout is set to stretch over six months, the army said that “operations continue against armed terrorist groups, especially against the top leaders of Al-Qaeda, GSIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) group.”

France has notched up some tactical victories during its nine year campaign, claims Zéphirin Kpoda in L’Observateur Paalga (Ouagadougou): thousands of militants have been killed in the region, including several prominent al-Qa’eda and Islamic State figures.

For instance, France’s army said Monday that its anti-jihadist force in Mali had killed Yahia Djouadi, a “senior leader” of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) responsible for finance and logistics. Djouadi, an Algerian also known as Abu Ammar al-Jazairi, was killed overnight from February 25 to 26 around (160 kilometres (100 miles) north of Timbuktu in central Mali, the army said in a statement.

But it has come at a high price: France spent about €1bn a year on its mission in the Sahel, and has lost 59 of its troops. The fighting has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.

Having been welcomed with chants of “Vive La France!” when they first entered Mali, French forces soon lost public support, said Mucahid Durmaz on Al Jazeera (Doha). The Tricolour came to be considered “a neo-colonial symbol”; and when the junta expelled France’s ambassador in January, Paris decided to make its exit.

The final straw for Macron, said The Wall Street Journal, was Mali’s decision to invite in 1,000 mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group. The “guns-for-hire” group, with close links to Putin’s regime, has “propped up dictators from Venezuela to Syria” and has a history of humanrights abuses.

Now, the Kremlin has spotted an opportunity to expand its influence “across resource-rich Africa” by protecting leaders who employ its mercenaries, in exchange for lucrative mining opportunities. Russia is staking its claim to one of the world’s most oil- and mineral-rich regions, said Benoît Delmas in Le Point (Paris), inviting itself into an area the West no longer has the appetite to protect. It’s “a boon” for the Kremlin, but it won’t stem the “terrorist contagion” sweeping the Sahel.