While Paris was counting on the strengthening of the Takuba counter-terrorism force in the Sahel region to compensate for the drawdown of soldiers from its former Operation Barkhane, Denmark announced on Thursday that it would withdraw its troops from Mali at the request of the ruling junta. Does this mark the beginning of the end for the Takuba Task Force?
The military junta in power in Bamako has dealt a serious blow to this coalition of European special forces (supported at arm’s length by France) by securing the departure of a hundred Danish soldiers.
“The generals in power have sent a clear message that Denmark is not welcome in Mali,” said Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod, after a meeting in parliament Thursday confirming the withdrawal of troops.
By demanding the departure of the Danish contingent from its territory, the junta is taking aim at the Takuba Task Force, launched in March 2020 and now established as a partial successor to Barkhane, France’s counter-terrorism operation in the West African Sahel region that President Emmanuel Macron has started to reduce from its initial 5,000-strong force. The force’s objectives include training Malian soldiers, gathering intelligence, and carrying out targeted operations by special forces.
Following Denmark’s troop withdrawal, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced on Thursday the “irresponsible measures” of an “illegitimate” junta in power in Bamako. “[This junta] bears full responsibility for the withdrawal of Danish forces and is further isolating itself from its international partners,” the minister said in Paris.
“The junta is multiplying its provocations,” expressed French Defence Minister Florence Parly on Tuesday while announcing “an in-depth consultation with our partners, particularly those involved in Takuba”.
The forced departure of the Danish contingent “is a hard blow and an attack for the umpteenth time on France,” said Caroline Roussy, associate researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), to FRANCE 24. “Denmark seems to be above all a collateral casualty [of the Malian military’s distrust of Paris]”.
Takuba: a weakened initiative
Beyond its operational role, this special force — a symbol of European defence — was also meant to show that Paris was giving up control of operations in Mali. Instead of the French tricolour, Takuba acts under the European flag.
Yet of the 900 men who make up the task force, nearly half are French. So far, only Denmark, Estonia, Sweden and the Czech Republic have sent special forces. The other countries involved have sent soldiers assigned to logistical tasks: Italy, for instance, has deployed a contingent of 200 soldiers to help with helicopter maintenance.
With this new show of hostility from the Malian junta, the Takuba initiative appears more fragile than ever. As tensions rise between Paris and Bamako, will other European capitals, already reluctant to send troops, continue to commit themselves alongside France? And will countries that have already promised reinforcements be able to convince their respective parliaments? Sweden, for one, has already decided to withdraw its troops from the mission.
This is not the first time that the Europeans have been hampered in their intervention in Mali. In January, the Malian transitional government accused a French military plane of flying over its territory without authorisation. A few days later, a German plane was refused permission to fly over Malian airspace. Faced with these repeated incidents, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) suspended all its internal flights for several days.
Staying in Mali — but at what price?
“This episode with Denmark risks upsetting other capitals. We can see that the Malian authorities have little desire to work with the Europeans and even less with France, although they do not fully acknowledge this,” says Roussy. “In the meantime, the country is in disarray, insecurity reigns and Bamako only controls 30% of the territory”.
French sources close to the case say that opinions are divided between European countries that do not want to work with the junta — and those that refuse to give carte blanche to Russia and mercenaries from the Wagner group.
The coup in Burkina Faso also complicates matters for Paris. Of the five Sahel countries where the anti-jihadist Barkhane force is deployed, three (Chad, Mali, Burkina) are now ruled by military juntas.
The EU wants to remain engaged in Mali and the Sahel “but not at any cost”, warned EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell on Wednesday after talks in Brussels with the foreign ministers of Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad.
Nine years of French military intervention in the Sahel have produced mixed results, to say the least. The jihadist groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda continue to wreak havoc in the region, despite the elimination of many of their leaders.
The Malian state has never truly succeeded in establishing a lasting presence in abandoned territories. Indeed, violence has spread to the centre of the country and then to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, before moving southwards into northern Ivory Coast, Benin and Ghana.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)