President Emmanuel Macron of France hosted a summit in Pau, southwestern France, with the heads of state of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauretania, and Niger. The purpose of the summit was to improve military coordination against insurgents with a particular focus on the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) and al-Qaeda affiliate Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). Macron also sought, and received from the African chiefs of state, an endorsement of France’s continued presence in the region. He, in turn, pledged a small increase in the number of French soldiers to be deployed there.
The summit was at least partly prompted by demonstrations in Sahelian capitals, most recently in Mali’s capital Bamako, calling the French role “neo-colonial.” Accordng to the New York Times, many of these protests were inspired by Islamist preachers. That has not gone down well with the French; as President Macron said in advance of the summit, “I know who is dying for the citizens of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. It’s French soldiers.”
From an American perspective, the most interesting development was the summit’s expression of unease about a possible drawdown of the American military presence in the region. It would occur at a time when insurgent activity is increasing. The heads of state explicitly stated their “gratitude for the crucial support provided by the United States and expressed the wish for its continuity.” From its bases in Niger, the United States provides intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to France and its African partners in the Sahel. It also provides air-to-air refueling services. A French presidency source characterized to the French media the U.S. role as “irreplaceable.”
Anxiety about an American withdrawal dates from the 2018 U.S. national defense review [PDF] that signaled a shift in U.S. priorities from the war on terrorism to great power competition. The U.S. military's presence in Africa received closer scrutiny after the deaths of four servicemen in an ambush in Tongo Tongo, Niger. In the aftermath, there has been discussion of a redeployment out of West Africa of U.S. resources devoted to the fight against terrorism. However, there have been mixed messages from U.S. sources and it is not clear if any drawdown has actually taken place yet. President Macron at Pau said, “If the Americans decided to pull out of Africa, it would be very bad news for us, absolutely. I hope that I can convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism, a fight that he is fully committed to, is at stake out in this region.” According to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has not yet made a decision.