Mali-France: Mission Unaccomplished

France is withdrawing from Mali. The Military Junta may not last. But France’s capacity to impose its will on its former colonies seems to be over.

After nine years of fighting Islamist rebels in Mali, 53 soldiers killed, and over ten billion euros sunk in the quick-sands of the Sahara, France says it is  pulling out of the country. The decision comes as 40 member states of the African Union are meeting with the EU in Brussels.

Although France is not withdrawing with its tail between the legs and under the guard of the very Jihadis it came to fight, like the United States did in Afghanistan last August, the “redeployment” certainly stinks of “Mission Unaccomplished.”

France’s position in Mali, and that of its partners, became difficult with back-to-back military coups in 2020 and 2021 and the refusal of the transition government to organize elections.

The military Junta expelled the French ambassador at the beginning of February this year to protest what they feel is France’s meddling in Malian affairs after West African ECOWAS member-states imposed sanctions on Bamako. France encouraged the move.

Anti-French sentiment became tangible after the 2021 coup and hostile rhetoric from the military regime which sparked widespread protests against the French presence.

The French president, Emanuel Macron, said in Brussels on February 17, “we can’t remain engaged militarily with these authorities with whom we share neither the strategy nor the hidden objectives” and who “have called on mercenaries from the (Russian) Wagner company.”

The French went into Mali, Paris said, to defend democracy against the Islamist take over, and the crowds cheered. But the continued presence became impossible to defend after the first military coup three years ago and public discontent.

France will maintain 2,500 to 3,000 troops in the Sahel region to help fight the Islamists, notably in Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger, a country where France gets its uranium to supply its nuclear reactors. Some 4,600 French soldiers are deployed there at present with 2,400 in Mali.

But the French president denies that France’s ‘Operation Berkhane’ was a failure.  “What would have happened in 2013 if France chose not to intervene? You would have certainly seen the collapse of the Malian state.”

When French troops arrived in January 2013, Tuareg rebels in the north had declared independence and Islamists affiliated with al Qaeda had entered the capital, Bamako. French and Malian forces were able to regain control of the country but factional and ethnic conflict erupted again after the flawed 2018 elections.

In a press conference in Brussels with the presidents of Senegal and Ghana as well as the European Council, Macron pledged to remain engaged in the fight against terrorism in West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. Macron said the area is a priority for the expansion of al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Some 25,000 troops are deployed in the Sahel to fight terrorism with 15,000 in the UN Minusma mission in Mali. Twenty-two European Union countries are involved in the EU Training Mission, EUMA.

Macron said it will take four to six months to close French bases in Gao, Ménaka and Gossi.  “During that time we will continue to assure the Minusma security mission” which will benefit from French air and medical support.

European forces taking part in Mali will be repositioned on the Malian border in Niger where France has an air base with 800 troops. France would like to make its presence more discrete but has no intention of halting anti-terrorist operations.

The German Defense Minister, Christine Lambrecht, said she is skeptical as to whether Germany will continue its training in the region. “The question is whether we can achieve our political objectives; that is to say who we support and who we train.”  There are some 1,500 German troops in Mali taking part in the military training program.

“We will recenter our actions on the requests of our partners and where our contribution is expected,” Macron said. “We will define in the weeks and months ahead the kind of support we can provide each country in the region based on the needs they express.”

What seems certain is the total collapse of Mali, a Tuareg secession in the north and an Islamist assault on the capital; that is to say 2012: déjà vu all over again.