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France Agrees to Small Troop Increase, but Little Else, at Sahel Summit

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France Agrees to Small Troop Increase, but Little Else, at Sahel Summit

France Agrees to Small Troop Increase, but Little Else, at Sahel Summit

PARIS — France’s partnership with West African armies to combat Islamist terrorism is flailing, but little new to reinforce it emerged from a quick summit meeting on Monday called by President Emmanuel Macron of France.

Flanked by the leaders of five West and Central African countries, Mr. Macron pledged to send an additional 220 French troops to the region, adding to the force of 4,500 already there. That force is under increasing criticism in some of the countries for failing to halt recurring massacres of local armies’ troops, and there have been calls for it to leave.

The leaders agreed Monday that France should not go anywhere.

Still, the small boost to the French force was the only concrete result of the meeting, called by a French president increasingly frustrated over calls from protesters in Mali and elsewhere for France to get out of the countries it once ruled as colonies.

“I know who is dying for the citizens of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso,” Mr. Macron said angrily at a news conference Monday night after the summit meeting. “It’s French soldiers.”

Mr. Macron, who had warned that France might withdraw its troops, wanted the leaders of the Sahel — the semiarid strip stretching more than 2,000 miles across West and Central Africa where violent groups loosely affiliated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda operate — to make clear, in public, that they wanted French forces to stay.

And if nothing else, the summit accomplished that goal.

The leaders of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad “have expressed their wish for the pursuit of France’s military engagement in the Sahel,” they said in a joint statement after meeting in the southwestern town of Pau.

They then pleaded with other European countries to join France’s mostly lonely fight in the region, and, protectively, expressed “gratitude” for the tactical support of the United States, which has also been threatening to pull out forces from the region.

France’s neighbors have shown little appetite for joining a fight that even some French officers say is unwinnable, and that appears to be gaining France few friends, especially in the territories where it is deployed.

The West African countries did pledge Monday to work more closely together, and with the French, to concentrate forces on the dangerous tri-border region shared by Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, and to focus on the regional affiliate of the Islamic State. But whether this will improve the military situation is unclear.

The poorly trained, unmotivated and badly led armies of these countries are subjected to repeated massacres by the jihadists who roam the desert. Last week, 89 soldiers from Niger were killed in an attack by militants at the camp of Chinegodar, near the Mali border. 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. Protesters, many inspired by Islamist preachers, have taken to the streets of the region’s cities to demand an end to the French military presence.

Asked at the Monday news conference by a Malian journalist why the French couldn’t stop the massacres, Mr. Macron bristled.

“The army is there at the demand of the Malian state,” he said. “When you consider the space that must be covered — it’s impossible to put troops everywhere.”

The presidents Monday pledged to work to “speed up the return of government and public service throughout the region in question.” Numerous such pledges have been made in the past, with little to show for them.

Commentators were quick to point out the paucity of results from Monday’s summit, and the political difficulty for the French government in undertaking the task of shoring up West African governments that are widely rejected on their home turf.

“To restore a state when there’s a rejection of the state, that’s a contradiction,” Jean-Hervé Jezequel, an expert on the region with the International Crisis Group, told France 24 television. “There’s a military strategy, but there’s no political strategy. If you want to restore a state, you’ve got to ask what state you’re restoring,” he said.

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