How France lost Mali: failure to quell the jihadist threat opens the door to Russia


Upon his arrival in the Saharan Malian city of Timbuktu in 2013 to celebrate his liberation from the Islamists with the help of French forces, then French President François Hollande was greeted as a hero and acclaimed with cries of “Vive France ! ”

Less than nine years later, France handed over its base in Timbuktu to Malian forces and the atmosphere in this West African country is bitter and anxious.

Several hundred kilometers away, in the capital Bamako, the French presence is still strong, but Russian flags are also visible – on the dashboards of rusty bucket taxis; on sale at roadside stalls and at occasional pro-Russian protests.

Like the Americans and their allies during their two decades in Afghanistan, the French-led Operation Barkhane failed to eradicate the jihadist threat in Mali and the Sahel region.

Malian leaders have harshly criticized the French for a strategy they claim has exacerbated the conflict and for their decision to halve their 5,000-strong military presence. They turned to Russia, a shift that has consequences not only for security but also for France’s influence.

“The relationship is broken at the moment,” said Mahmoud Ould Mohamed, Malian Minister of Trade and Commerce ad interim.

Bamako is in talks to hire mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner group, which is under US and European sanctions and accused of war crimes. At the UN general assembly in September, Malian Prime Minister Choguel Maiga declared that France had abandoned Mali, leaving it little choice but to seek “other partners”.

The talks with Wagner infuriated Paris. After two coups d’état in Bamako in less than a year, France says the Malian government lacks legitimacy and that a partnership with Wagner could jeopardize a fight against extremists who have killed thousands and displaced millions across the Sahel. Wagner’s talks make it clear how much the relationship between the two has deteriorated, according to diplomats and analysts in the region.

A French soldier mans a machine gun aboard a helicopter during a night mission in Gao, Mali
A French soldier aboard a helicopter during a night mission in Gao, northern Mali © Jérôme Delay / AP
Ali Nouhoum Diallo, former president of the National Assembly of Mali

Ali Nouhoum Diallo, former president of the National Assembly of Mali, declares that Emmanuel Macron wants to be the “boss” of the former French colony © Florent Vergnes / FT

Although northern Mali is safer than in 2013, the violence has shifted to the center of the country where the majority of the 20 million people live. Targeted assassinations of French jihadists and joint operations with local forces have done little to ease the crisis.

Extremist violence has also spread to Burkina Faso, which has seen large swathes of the country escape government control, and Niger, where hundreds of protesters in November blocked a convoy of 100 Barkhane vehicles in frustration. French authorities are investigating reports that his troops in Barkhane are responsible for the deaths of two protesters.

This year has been the most violent of the last decade for the three countries in terms of events such as terrorist attacks and battles, with 2,426 such incidents, up from 244 in 2013, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location project. and Event Data. In terms of deaths, it was the second deadliest after 2020, with 5,317 deaths in the three countries, against 949 in 2013. Mali alone recorded 948 violent events in 2021, against 230 in 2013.

In June, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a withdrawal of Barkhane’s forces. He argued that the French army, which has lost 53 soldiers, can no longer compensate for the “non-work” of the Malian state. The move came three months after the UN discovered that a French airstrike killed 19 civilians, including women and children, at a wedding party in central Mali. France denies that civilians died in the bombings.

At the same time, Paris made a series of strategic decisions that angered Malians. For the past two years, he has focused on the more brutal Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) in the tri-border region between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, instead of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), the consortium of groups linked to al-Qaeda that is behind the vast majority of violence in Mali.

Mali “wondered why France is focusing on ISGS, which represents around 10% of the problem, instead of JNIM, which represents 90%,” said a Western diplomat. A Macron adviser acknowledged that France had focused on the tri-border area, but said both groups were priority targets.

Many also blame the Paris-led Western intervention in Libya where the jihadists lived and trained. “They [the French] came to play firefighter in Mali, but they set fire to Libya, ”said Boubacar Sidiki Sylla, national coordinator in Mali of Pan-Africanist Emergencies, an anti-French and pro-Russian group active throughout French-speaking Africa.

Graph showing the increase in death tolls in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger;  total number of conflict-related deaths reported

In the absence of any perceived results on the ground, resentment rooted in France’s colonial past has bubbled up. Macron said he wanted to break up with Françafrique, the system of close commercial, economic and political ties that have defined the relationship since independence.

But critics say the 44-year-old leader has instead maintained a paternalistic approach, such as when he summoned his older African counterparts to a castle in Pau, southwestern France, last summer to insist their public support for the military operation in the face of rising anti-French sentiment.

“He wants to be the boss. . .[but] we are a very proud people ”, declared the former president of the National Assembly Ali Nouhoum Diallo. A diplomat pointed out that the vehicle registration plates of the Embassy in Bamako are numbered in the order in which the countries recognized the independence of Mali, with France coming at number 10. And yet, said the diplomat , “They demand this exaggerated respect, [which] hurts them ”.

French soldiers of the Barkhane force have lunch at a military base in Gao
French troops have lunch at a military base in Gao © Thomas Coex / AFP / Getty

Macron’s senior adviser said the problem was not France’s attitude, but that the Malian junta was breaking its commitment to hold elections in February and clinging to power it had illegally seized. “Trying to pass all of this off as a fight between Mali and the former colonial power is a pretty crass trap that we [won’t] fall in, ”the advisor said.

This long-standing anti-colonial sentiment is meanwhile exploited by groups linked to Russia and Wagner, according to Western officials, while Maiga’s fiery speech at the UN has underscored the contradictory nature of anti-French sentiment. “They tell France to leave, but also attack them for leaving,” said Michael Shurkin, former CIA analyst and director of global programs at Dakar-based consultancy 14N Strategies.

Moussa Mara, who served as prime minister in 2014-15, said France was a convenient bogeyman for a junta which, like its predecessors, had no plans to fight terrorism. “There are people who think that if it is not raining in Mali, it is France’s fault,” he said. “Make France a [the] adversary – this is a strategic political decision. You get applause. This creates an opportunity to delay the elections.

Chart showing 2021 was the most violent year in a decade for Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria combined

Barkhane is the only significant counterterrorism force operating in the region, analysts say, and few, even among France’s top critics, believe that weak national armies could effectively combat the jihadist threat. The 14,000-strong UN peacekeeping operation in Mali, Minusma, is largely responsive.

Paris has, for years, tried to internationalize the effort to fight terrorism in the Sahel, but without much success. The United States provides surveillance and intelligence, and the United Nations provides logistical support. The Takuba Special Forces Task Force that France has long touted as the next phase of the mission includes troops from Estonia, Portugal, Sweden and other European countries, but remains largely French.

Among Western allies, the reluctance to engage militarily is both political and practical – they recognize a clear reality for most Malians. “The conflict in Mali will not be resolved by military forces,” said Yeah Samake, an opposition politician. “It’s more complex.

Macron visiting troops in Mali in 2017. At least 53 French soldiers have been killed in the conflict to date © Christophe Petit Tesson / Pool / AP
Moussa Mara, former Malian Prime Minister

Moussa Mara, former Malian Prime Minister, declares that Paris is a convenient bogeyman for Malian politicians who lack the strategy to defeat terrorists © Florent Vergnes / FT

Many Malians, on the other hand, want talks with the jihadists, whose objectives on the ground tend to be local or criminal rather than religious or ideological. Paris does not agree.

There are no known Wagner fighters in Mali yet, but two diplomats in Bamako and a senior Malian security official have confirmed that there have been “prosecutions on the ground” to sort out the details of the potential contract, including surveying gold mines which could be used as a means of payment. .

“People are convinced that the French are there to steal their natural resources,” said Shurkin. “In the meantime, they want to turn to the Russians, who are explicitly there for this purpose.”

With France withdrawing and no one else, said a Western diplomat, it was no surprise that Mali reached out to Russia. “The junta is desperately asking every Western country for military assistance. . . even the least martial European countries, but everyone says no, ”said a Western diplomat. “They say we are drowning in a sea of ​​insecurity and we have to take something.”

Even Diallo, a harsh critic of France since his student days in Senegal before independence, has little illusions about Russian aid. “Mali can work with different partners to unify the country, but think that the Russians will come here and die for Mali? No, you are wrong.

Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris


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