France wants US to stay in the Sahel

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France hopes “good sense” will prevail and the US will not slash support for French military operations in West Africa, where groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State are expanding their foothold.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made the appeal as Defence Minister Florence Parly was due to meet US counterparts to discuss the crisis in the Sahel.

The Pentagon last year announced plans to withdraw military personnel from Africa as it redirects resources to address challenges from China and Russia after two decades focused on counter-terrorism operations. The cuts could deepen following an ongoing global troop review spearheaded by Defence Secretary Mark Esper.

The possibility alarms France, which relies on US intelligence and logistics for its 4 500-strong mission in the Sahel. The deaths of 13 French soldiers in a helicopter crash during a combat mission in Mali in November increased France’s determination to secure more support in the zone.

France believes it is time to increase, not ease, pressure on militants to prevent “Islamic State rebuilding in the Sahel,” a senior French defence ministry official told Reuters.

Parly put her case to Esper and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien this week.

“I hope they will be rational to keep this partnership and that good sense will prevail,” le Drian told reporters.

The US currently has 6 000 military personnel in Africa. Some experts say repositioning of forces is overdue but many US officials share French concerns about relieving pressure on militants in Africa.

“Any withdrawal or reduction would result in a surge in violent extremist attacks on the continent and beyond,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Chris Coons wrote in a letter to Esper.

Groups in the Sahel are believed intent on attacks against the US and currently do not have the capacity to do so, officials say.

SCRAMBLING DRONES

General Francois Lecointre, chief of staff of the French armed forces, told Reuters the loss of US intelligence from intercepted communications would be the “biggest setback”.

“I’m doing my utmost to prevent this happening,” he said, adding French drone-based spying systems would not be operational until year-end.

France would deploy 220 additional troops, despite rising anti-French sentiment in some countries and criticism at home its forces are bogged down.

Parly recently visited the Sahel with counterparts from Portugal, Sweden and Estonia to press European allies to do more by contributing Special Forces to a new French-led unit due to be set up this year.

A main aim, officials said, is to improve co-ordination between regional troops and French aircraft able to carry out air strikes.



So far, take-up has been limited with only Estonia committing 40 troops, while discussions continue with eight nations. Germany refuses to take part.