Is the conflict in the Sahel on its way to becoming yet another failure in the total war on terror? After months of tirade, the walls have finally fallen, as the loss of mutual trust has led to a divorce between Paris and Bamako. The new Malian junta has crossed all the red lines drawn by the French government, which had already opted, beyond the narrative of transformation, for a gradual military disengagement by 2023. Between the political alternation by putsch, the seizure of power by the military elites and the proliferation of nuisance activities by the Islamist nebula, Mali, and more broadly the Sahel, are in the grip of a security crisis coupled with chronic political instability. Faced with political chaos and a security stalemate, France and its allies have just officially announced a coordinated withdrawal from Mali.
Weary of the presence of the French operation, whose counter-terrorism bias quickly showed its limits, the Malian military junta exacerbated popular anti-French sentiments to push the former colonizing power out. It is done. Now, to diversify its alliances and at the risk of losing its traditional partners, Bamako is turning to the mercenary company Wagner, the Kremlin’s gun without a number.
Faced with this pace of recomposition of the regional order, France must find its way to continue the fight against terrorism in order to extend its military involvement in the Sahelian strip. Understanding the strategic mistakes that have been made by France, as a framework nation of the international military alliance, will allow for a better definition of the possible new parameters for the establishment of a military device that revives the strategic impetus of its mission in the sub-region.
A Record Tarnished by the Failure to Stabilize the Sahel
President Emmanuel Macron made it clear at the African Union summit that he would not compromise on the security of French forces during this four-to-six-month transition period. However, more than nine years after the start of French operations in Mali, Paris is being ordered by the authorities in Bamako to leave the territory without delay. Welcomed in 2013 as liberators, the French military is now being driven out of Mali. While the rupture is sealed, the setback is significant for the French government, which is trying to save the merits of its military involvement. Difficult efforts when violence against civilians increased by 25% between April and June 2021 while the French military was fully operational.
Ahead of the French presidential elections, President Emmanuel Macron denied the idea that Operation Barkhane has failed. After the end of the third European operation to fight jihadism in the Sahel. However, the spokesman for the M5-RFP movement appointed by the transitional Malian prime minister points to the lack of concrete results, which in his opinion attested to the failure of the French operation in the state.
Eradicating the Jihadist Groundswell in Vain
The very foundations of Operation Barkhane may provide the clues that led the French army to the strategic quagmire from which it is now struggling to escape. In 2013, Operation Serval was based on precise and credible objectives, namely, to halt the jihadist breakthrough in northern Mali and regain control of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu while avoiding a capture of the capital. The euphoria after this strategic success led the French authorities to define the ambitious contours of the new military operation. Much more ambiguous, Operation Barkhane was intended to contain the terrorist threat, which has now become regionalized, while strengthening the security apparatus of the G5 Sahel states.
With this multidimensional and cooperative approach, tactical successes were achieved with the elimination of several Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leaders, while the entrenchment of these armed terrorist groups (ATG) was halted for a time. The territorialization of jihadist groups was avoided, but in a region where there is uneven coverage by Malian state security forces, the political, economic, and social entrenchment of the Islamist hydra was not undermined by the killing of these key targets. The attractiveness of these groups cannot be fully understood by the counterterrorism approach.
Community dynamics prior to the conflict have been obscured by the French army, leading to a major strategic analysis error. Intra- and inter-community conflicts, clan and family logics, and the system of statutory allegiance are intrinsically linked to the rise of radicalization and offer recruitment levers for the ATGs. The war on terrorism is structuring. It induces parameters that constitute blinkers for the French government, which has difficulty grasping all the local dynamics.
Since war is a political phenomenon and terrorism is one of the variants that blurs the lines between peace and conflict, it seems inconceivable that the rise of violent extremism can be eradicated only through military victories, which have certainly multiplied for the French army. The military instrument must support a holistic political approach focused on conflict resolution.
The Neglect of Governance Issues
The disintegration of post-independence states, of which Mali is a part, and their numerous failures in terms of security and the difficulty of deepening democratic processes have fuelled the questioning of these models of governance. The dependence on the military path and the disastrous economic situation provides fertile ground for both the multiplication of putsches and the establishment of a zone of influence for the ATGs, who propose a political alternative to ensure minimum services and protect civilians abandoned by the central government. The inability to provide security for the population gives successive coups d’état broad popular support, as Mali has experienced two in less than a year, while the structural weaknesses of the state reinforce a spiral of violence that benefits the ATGs.
In order to stop this cyclical dynamic, the French army has opted for a counter-insurgency strategy that aims to secure strategic spaces in order to establish political solutions and transform tactical successes into political victories. On the one hand, despite the positive annual military balance sheet, this framework establishes a logic of perpetual war. On the other hand, for fear of being accused of foreign interference, Paris made the mistake of not doing any state building and of entrusting this process to the Malian authorities, who have neither the financial means nor the political will to tackle the underlying causes of the conflict. Externalizing the militarization of the region may comfort certain corrupt and wait-and-see elites who do not implement the necessary reforms, particularly those stemming from the 2015 Algiers Agreement, to re-establish governmental authority and rebuild the social fabric of Mali.
The structural weaknesses of the Malian state and the resulting resistance to reform make the French intervention an ineffective military mechanism. The French president repeated that “France cannot substitute itself for the return of the state and political stability.” The problem of global governance cannot be fought with arms. The French army is fighting in vain against a disparate threat from terrorist groups. A UN report also points to the responsibility of the Malian military for the increase in violence and the many abuses that plague its ranks. “Over the past three years, civilian casualties related to terrorism in the Sahel have accounted for between 30 and 40 percent of all casualties, with the remainder being killed by vigilante groups and repression by national armies.” This phenomenon is a clear demonstration of the failures of the Malian security apparatus.
One of the pillars of Operation Barkhane and European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali) was to train, advise and strengthen the Malian armed forces (FAMa) and more broadly the joint forces of the G5 Sahel in order to empower them to take ownership of their own security. After years of training, the Malian army still seems unable to constitute a credible force capable of curbing the jihadist threat.
Unwilling to undertake the security sector reform necessary to abandon the clientelism and co-optation that suffocated the Malian security apparatus, the French state injected a great deal of cash into support programs that were often disconnected from the realities on the ground for the construction of a real military institution. There were many obstacles to building Malian military capacity, including the difficulty of reconciling rival factions and the deep-seated differences that developed between Malian and international actors.
Operational Errors and the Breakdown of Mutual Trust
At the root of this decade-long conflict was the Tuareg secessionist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), which ignited a revolt against Mali’s legitimate military authorities in 2012. In the north of the state, terrorist groups seized this window of opportunity by ousting the movement. Their incursion triggered the start of the French Operation Serval.
Against all odds, the French army coordinated its military action with that of the NMLA in order to cooperate in the liberation of French hostages in northern Mali. France saw this rebel group as a potential ally, even though it is the hereditary enemy of the regular armed forces, which have been fighting a fratricidal war among themselves since Mali’s independence. This close collaboration with ethnic militias has tarnished relations with Bamako, since France, instead of being a supporting force for the FAMa, seemed to operate like a lone cavalier. This questionable tactical choice may have contributed to the Malian perception that the French military was an army of occupation.
Similarly, Malian nationalism may have been exacerbated by the French army’s refusal to allow Malian special forces to enter Kidal when it was liberated from the jihadists in 2013. While the fear of reprisals by the FAMa against civilians was credible, it nevertheless rekindled anti-French feelings, thus widening the gap between the two partners.
The point of no return was reached when the MINUSMA investigation report concluded that the air strike conducted by the French anti-jihadist force near the village of Bounti had led to the death of 22 civilians in January 2021. This incident confirmed the rupture of the bond of trust that had been steadily eroding between the French government and the Malian population. Part of the French political class refutes the accusation of foul play, however, demonstrations demanding the departure of the French have increased significantly.
A Lost War in the Information Field
France’s diplomatic mistakes have reinforced Malians’ patriotic and sovereigntist sentiment, and the transitional government has not been shy about capitalizing on this hostile public opinion toward the former colonizer. The new Malian junta’s attempt to extend the transition period by five years despite its commitment to hold free elections in February 2022 has had serious consequences.
An arsenal of sanctions has been deployed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to isolate Mali on the international scene, weakening its economy and exacerbating internal pressure from the Malian population against the transitional government. In the wake of ECOWAS, France opted for a punitive approach by advocating the adoption of sanctions. The junta was quick to accuse Paris of fomenting the embargo on Mali.
By reacting firmly to this coup d’état within a coup d’état, France is sending contradictory signals, since it carried a wait-and-see attitude during the first putsch in Mali and has shown a certain complacency toward the new Chadian junta that emerged from an unconstitutional takeover. The French government has been accused of hypocrisy, supporting repressive regimes when it is in line with its regional strategy to maintain them and disavowing the Malian military junta when it is openly hostile to the French presence.
If strategic incoherence is the order of the day, Paris has nonetheless become the scapegoat for all of Mali’s ills. France has seen all the symbols of its presence attacked by movements from African civil society. Accusations of the perpetuation of France-Africa or neo-colonialism are spreading like wildfire across the Sahel.
Part of the Malian population does not understand the objectives of Operation Barkhane, and public opinion in the Sahel is sensitive to anti-colonial discourse. However, the disinformation is nonetheless partly orchestrated by rival states trying to project their power in the subcontinent. Fake news finds a particular echo on social networks, and the French government struggles to assert the defamatory nature of these mostly unfounded rumors. The French army is lagging behind in this sometimes-asymmetrical informational struggle because of the anti-democratic nature of its opponents’ regime.
In addition to discrediting the French army, this propaganda is fed by the Kremlin as part of its hybrid strategy in Africa. The arrival of the Wagner group in Mali crystallized tensions between Paris and Bamako, and the political one-upmanship tragically pushed these paramilitaries into the arms of Assimi Goita, the new strongman of the junta. In a crossroads unfavorable to France, Russia’s auxiliary army will not be able to fill the security vacuum that has emerged with the departure of 5,000 French soldiers. This costly military force for the Malian regime is too weak and the strategic interests are quite different. The private mercenary company Wagner was initially intended to protect key figures in the regime, but their presence has now grown to 350 paramilitaries with the new objective of fighting terrorism, which is proliferating in central Mali.
Reducing the French army’s footprint in the region has been a strategic priority since the announcement of the transformation of Operation Barkhane. Nevertheless, the inability to develop a structuring diplomacy with Bamako, the rise of anti-French sentiment, and the Wagner group’s new resurgence in Mali is a slap in the face for Paris. The loss of influence is undeniable, but it is a way for France to rethink its intervention in the region.
A Window of Opportunity for a Necessary Strategic Redeployment
The juxtaposition of several military devices in the Sahel has led to the formation of a security bottleneck. With this new security situation, France could subcontract the management of Malian insecurity to the Wagner group, which seems to want to contain a jihadist threat that a military force of about 5,000 soldiers has not been able to do.
Paris now estimates that the contingent of Russian paramilitaries has reached 1,000 individuals. While the links between this private company and the Kremlin are not official, the Malian junta is nonetheless moving dangerously close to Moscow while it has just unilaterally denounced bilateral defence agreements with France. Would this emerging partnership make it possible to contain the ATG in Mali and in the tri-border region without allowing them to destabilize the entire Sahelo-Saharan band? France could then focus its energies on Eastern Europe, where Ukraine is undergoing a large-scale invasion. However, the Russian system seems to be insufficient today to achieve such an objective. Moreover, faced with the failure of Barkhane and once again with its colonial past, France does not wish to abandon its historical territory so easily. Finally, the operating methods of this private militia, particularly in the Central African Republic where numerous abuses have been recorded, are contrary to the rules of engagement and the ethics of the French army.
Faced with the reaction of the Malian junta, the European Takuba mission deployed in this advanced frontier of the old continent is finally stillborn. Anxious to consolidate French leadership, Emmanuel Macron, as the representative of the state that holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the next six months, could keep the diplomatic effort that gave birth to this international multidimensional force. The member states of this coalition wish to “remain engaged in the region,” which is an undeniable asset for the preservation of this first large-scale experiment in a Europe of defence so dear to the French presidency.
A redeployment of the European Takuba force to strategic border areas in Mali is still possible. Beyond the fallback solution, even if the possibility for the repositioning of the forces involved could lead to violent popular demonstrations, Niger could become the new pivotal state to save the new international military arrangement. France could also extend its support to states in the Gulf of Guinea that share more of its strategic orientation and are increasingly exposed to the nuisance activities of ATGs moving south. Working in conjunction with its European and African partners, this new posture could strengthen the defensive postures of other G5 Sahel member states. It would contain ATG so that terrorists no longer threaten the entire region – but at what cost to the neighboring Mali?
After the expulsion of the French ambassador, re-establishing diplomatic channels with Bamako must be a priority for Paris. The withdrawal of the Barkhane force could provide an opportunity for the junta to reactivate a constructive bilateral dialogue with armed terrorist groups for a more inclusive Algiers 2.0 agreement, despite the red line drawn by the French government. An amnesty agreement along the lines of the Algerian dialogue of the 1990s could emerge from the opportunity presented by the departure of the French.
The French operation in Mali is a colossus with feet of clay. As the conflict landscape in the Sahel continues to shift, the accelerated withdrawal of French troops is the perfect opportunity for the government to continue the re-articulation of its involvement in the sub-region. The new strategic orientation that is being developed will necessarily have to strengthen the political underpinnings of this intervention to ensure its acceptability. Paris could take advantage of bilateral relations with neighboring countries that are less degraded than those with Bamako to develop less asymmetric military partnerships.
A less politically exposed French external operation that induces a lighter footprint via air assets and a reinforcement of capabilities in the information domain are necessary. To face this growing competition, France must reactivate the dialogue with Bamako to avoid leaving the field open to Russia. With the Kremlin’s growing ambitions, Paris is obliged to offer a credible alternative to fill the security vacuum and to respond to the dynamics of diversifying the relations of West African countries. Only through this new strategic leap forward can the much-feared French retreat be avoided.