PARIS – The association of France with the armies of West Africa to combat Islamist terrorism is shaking, but little new to strengthen it emerged from a rapid summit meeting convened on Monday by President Emmanuel Macron of France.
Flanked by the leaders of five countries in West and Central Africa, Macron promised to send an additional 220 French troops to the region, which would add to the force of 4,500 already there. That force is being criticized more and more in some countries for not stopping the recurrent massacres of the troops of the local armies, and it has been asked to leave.
The leaders agreed on Monday that France should not go anywhere.
Even so, the small impulse to the French force was the only concrete result of the meeting, convened by a French president increasingly frustrated by the calls of protesters in Mali and elsewhere for France to leave the countries that once He ruled as colonies.
“I know who is dying for the citizens of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso,” Macron said angrily at a press conference Monday night after the summit meeting. “They are French soldiers.”
Mr. Macron, who had warned that France could withdraw its troops, wanted the leaders of the Sahel, the semi-arid strip that stretched more than 2,000 miles across West and Central Africa where violent groups affiliated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda operated, made clear, in public, that French forces wanted to stay.
And if nothing else, the summit achieved that goal.
The leaders of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad “have expressed their desire to pursue France’s military commitment in the Sahel,” they said in a joint statement after meeting in the city of Pau, in the southwestern United States. .
They then begged other European countries to join France’s lonely struggle in the region and, protectively, expressed “gratitude” for the tactical support of the United States, which has also been threatening to withdraw forces from the region.
The neighbors of France have shown little appetite for joining a fight that even some French officers say cannot be won, and that few friends seem to be winning in France, especially in the territories where it is deployed.
The West African countries pledged Monday to work more closely, and with the French, to concentrate forces in the dangerous three-border region shared by Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, and focus on the regional affiliate of the Islamic State. But if this will improve the military situation it is not clear.
The poorly trained, demotivated and poorly directed armies of these countries are subjected to repeated massacres by jihadists who roam the desert. Last week, 89 Niger soldiers were killed in a militant attack at the Chinegodar camp near the border with Mali. And there have been numerous similar attacks in recent years.
Thousands of citizens in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have been displaced, hundreds of schools have been closed and the United Nations has warned of a humanitarian crisis in the region. The protesters, many inspired by Islamist preachers, have taken to the streets of the cities of the region to demand the end of the French military presence.
When a Mali journalist asked him at the press conference on Monday why the French could not stop the massacres, Macron bristled.
“The army is there at the request of the state of Mali,” he said. “When considering the space to be covered, it is impossible to place troops everywhere.”
The presidents pledged Monday to work to “accelerate the return of government and public service throughout the region in question.” Numerous promises of this kind have been made in the past, with little to show.
The commentators were quick to point out the shortage of results of the Monday summit and the political difficulty for the French government in the task of propping up the West African governments that are widely rejected in their territory.
“Restoring a state when there is a rejection of the state, that is a contradiction,” Jean-Hervé Jezequel, an expert in the region with the International Crisis Group, told France 24 television. “There is a military strategy, but there is no political strategy If you want to restore a state, you must ask what state you are restoring, “he said.