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French defence chief heads to US to press Sahel case

Paris and allies consider the Sahel critical for ensuring Europe’s security against jihadist threats, and for stemming an unchecked flow of migrants across the Mediterranean

Paris, France | AFP |  France’s defence minister departs for Washington on Sunday hoping to convince officials to keep US soldiers in West Africa, where French authorities are under pressure after years of trying to bolster local forces against Islamic extremists.

Florence Parly’s visit comes just days after her tour of the Sahel region, a vast arid expanse where states have little more than nominal control, allowing jihadist fighters to flourish.

Paris and its allies consider the region increasingly critical for ensuring Europe’s security against jihadist threats and for stemming an unchecked flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.

The United States has been a key ally for France’s 4,500-member Barkhane operation, providing intelligence and surveillance via drones as well as in-flight refuelling and logistical transport, at a cost of $45 million a year.

“The American commitment to the region is essential because they provide critical capabilities, some of which cannot be replaced,” an official in the French presidency told AFP this week.

But President Donald Trump insists the US must focus on containing Russia and China, with Africa seen as less of a direct threat — and one that should be left to France and the European Union.

American military chiefs have confirmed they are considering a drawdown of troops from Africa.

“I want to make sure, as we look at counterterrorism, that I first and foremost am addressing threats to the homeland,” US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told journalists this week.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has said a decision on the deployment of 7,000 US special forces in Africa, particularly those in the Sahel, could come by early March.

“The question that we are working with the French on is the level of effort we are supporting the French with,” he said. “Is it too much? Too little? About right?”

– Risky withdrawal –

President Emmanuel Macron admitted a US pullout would be “very bad news,” after a summit with France’s five Sahel partners earlier this month — not least because EU nations have shown little enthusiasm to join the fight.

France first deployed forces in 2012 to counter Islamic insurgency that had assailed much Mali’s north.

Since then the operation has been expanded to Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, tasked with building up a homegrown G5 Sahel force capable of fighting the jihadists on its own.

Prominent US lawmakers such as Republican Lindsey Graham have urged Trump to uphold the Africa missions, warning of the risk of increased terror attacks in the Sahel and beyond.

“As Florence Parly reiterated during her recent Sahel visit, we have to make sure a strategic rebalancing doesn’t hamper our efforts in the Sahel,” French army chief of staff spokesman Colonel Frederic Barbry said last week.

But critics say local forces remain woefully outmatched by insurgents who have staged increasingly brazen and deadly attacks in recent months.

They also point to a long history of corruption and authoritarian rule in the region, which has corroded faith in local governments while sapping public support for France’s military engagement.

Pressure has also mounted on Paris since 13 soldiers were killed in a helicopter collision while pursuing jihadist fighters in Mali last month, the deadliest toll for France’s military in nearly four decades.

Parly is also expected to discuss the future of the US-led coalition based in Iraq amid strained relations following the US drone strike thate killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.

Paris insists the coalition must continue battling jihadist forces in nearby Syria to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for a wave of terror attacks on French soil since 2015.

France worries that captured foreign fighters held in Syria will escape if the coalition curtails its operations.

On Friday, thousands of Iraqis rallied in Baghdad to demand the ouster of US troops from the country, though Trump and Iraqi counterpart Barham Saleh agreed in Davos on the need for a continued US military role.

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