Attacks by armed groups in Mali have become more frequent, spreading from northern to central regions, then into the north of Burkina Faso and Niger, despite efforts to stabilise it militarily and economically over eight years. They killed more than 4,000 in 2019, five times more than in 2016, according to the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (Unowas). The groups are mobile and flexible, and exploit Mali’s administrative vacuum (1); they avoid towns and base themselves in marginal zones: along borders, on food transit routes and corridors used by arms and drug traffickers, combatants and migrants.
Forces deployed in the Sahel since France’s Operation Serval in 2013 have failed to defeat these kata’ib (battalions), who avoid direct confrontations and successfully embed themselves within communities without taking official control. Their estimated numbers range from the hundreds to a few thousand.
The Malian army is still the ‘sick man’ of the region, despite the efforts of the EU Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali). Mali claims a force of 16,000 but probably fewer than 10,000 are operational. As often in Africa, these soldiers, trained for war between states or for protecting political regimes, are poorly prepared for internal or border-zone conflicts. The infantry’s mobility is severely restricted by poor projection capacity, so it is often confined to barracks or fixed posts, a prime target for rebel attacks. There have been similar repeated attacks on Niger’s army.
The creation of G5 Sahel is a good idea in theory only. ‘Bringing together weaknesses doesn't produce strength; plus there's the complexity of multilateralism and funding. It all ends up over-complicated' Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah
The Malian army, like others in the sub-region, has also had to assimilate several waves of ex-combatants, especially Touaregs, following various peace agreements (1992, 2006, 2013, 2015). Soldiers’ pay remains inadequate, conditions for advancement are controversial, and corruption is endemic even among the high command; overpriced helicopters and fighter planes bought in the 1990s on the international market proved unusable. Mali’s military, despite being equipped and trained by the EU, France and the US, and rebuilt under an ambitious five-year plan since 2015, has suffered multiple setbacks: it was attacked and soon overwhelmed in its barracks in central Mali, and driven out of the north, which it had not fully controlled for decades, only regaining a tenuous foothold in January 2020. Worse, it has committed war crimes. Alioune Tine, a Senegalese independent human rights expert, recorded over 200 extrajudicial killings in 2020, particularly in Mali’s central region around Mopti and Ségou; similar accusations against Burkinabé forces are also common.
Cooperation in the G5 Sahel
Since 2014, troops from the region have cooperated under the framework of the G5 Sahel (2), whose members are Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad. Their aim is to combat cross-border instability through joint economic and civil society development efforts (still largely inadequate) and by pooling military resources. Each member has allocated one or two battalions to a joint force, which has its headquarters in Mali’s capital, Bamako, and liaises with France’s Operation Barkhane force, based in N’Djamena (Chad).
The G5 Sahel runs joint operations in border zones, with rights of hot pursuit up to 100km beyond territorial limits, has established rapid action groups, and enables intelligence to be exchanged and national security policies harmonised. But Mauritanian diplomat Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, director of the Centre for Strategies for Security in the Sahel-Sahara region (C4S), believes the creation of the G5 Sahel is a good idea only in theory: ‘Bringing together weaknesses doesn’t produce strength; plus there’s the complexity of multilateralism and external funding. It all ends up over-complicated’ (France Info, 11 December 2019). There would be extra challenges if more countries joined, such as Senegal or Côte d’Ivoire.
In 2020 there were some successes, notably in Liptako-Gourma, the ‘three borders’ region shared by Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. But complete territorial control remains elusive: on 2 January this year Malian fighters travelling on motorbikes killed around 100 Nigerien villagers, the worst massacre in a decade. Last year, Niger’s army lost around 100 men in attacks on its posts. The French military has suffered its worst recent losses (12 of 55 killed since 2013) in this region.
The Chadian army, one of the region’s most experienced, was supposed to supply an eighth battalion to the joint force, but Idriss Déby, who assumed the G5 Sahel presidency in February, dropped this plan. He decided to concentrate his elite troops around Lake Chad instead, citing the threat from the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram. Déby awarded himself the title of field marshal last August, after constitutional manipulation; he wants all his armed forces available to see off any threat to his 30-year reign.
Another important player is the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma), one of the UN’s main peacekeeping operations, with a headcount that has grown to 14,000 in five years. It is deployed throughout Mali, but is often accused of failing to adequately protect civilians. Regional heads of state want a lighter, more responsive force with a stronger mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter so they can go beyond self-defence and ‘impose’ peace. UN peacekeepers could then be more proactive, in the north — which is disputed by the central government and autonomist groups — and in central Mali, the epicentre of jihadist attacks and intercommunal violence.
Without such a mandate, this peacekeeping mission will be just a ‘machine for distributing compensation’, Senegal’s president Macky Sall told the last Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa in November 2019. Mauritania’s Ould-Abdallah says, ‘These passive forces are too expensive and discredit the international community,’ but he believes the threat is real and justifies an international response. ‘Our countries have neither the resources, nor the endurance and cohesion to withstand all these attacks. Especially when they take on ethnic dimensions.’
France’s ‘expeditionary culture’
The most significant military contingent is the successor to Operation Serval: France’s Barkhane force, now deployed in the five Sahel states. It dominates the regional security apparatus with 5,100 troops rotated every four months, and a significant air-mobile component: helicopters in Mali, transport planes in N’Djamena and drones and fighters in Niamey (Niger). The former French ambassador to Mali, Nicolas Normand, told French weekly Marianne last August, ‘If it’s withdrawn, there will be chaos.’ The French army still has a strong ‘expeditionary culture’ dating from the colonial era, particularly in its navy and the Foreign Legion. As in the past, the Barkhane troops are experienced in night raids on suspect villages, searches and arrests, now conducted jointly with African soldiers.
But eight years after President François Hollande boasted of the French army’s victory, it is bogged down in an attempt to control an area the size of western Europe, in a context of fragile political regimes and local militaries, as demonstrated by the coup in Mali on 18 August 2020. Despite being large and well-equipped, Operation Barkhane is trying to square the circle: reducing the terrorist threat sufficiently for local actors to be able to control it; containing the violence of the jihadist kata’ib in the Sahel, knowing that despite repeated tactical successes, overall victory is impossible; and avoiding, as a matter of principle, intervening in community and ethnic affairs and conflicts over land, water and livestock, which is beyond its remit.
There's no obvious good solution for Operation Barkhane. Relocating or withdrawing entirely would free France of any direct responsibility, but would probably provide a way in for jihadists and perhaps also China, Russia or Turkey
Over time, the French military has adapted its tactics, following a plan that General Didier Castres devised in 2015: ‘Stop thinking only in terms of attrition, elimination and eradication, as in “Clausewitzian” [traditional] wars’ (3), and instead target flows, networks, nodes and centres; look for weaknesses, using a good knowledge of logistics, chains of command and communication systems; think in terms of ‘platforms’, not ‘garrison logic’; be capable of executing a strategy of perpetual movement and adaptation; create surprise in place, time and scale, and use foudroyance (a sudden crippling shock) (4). François Lecointre, armed forces chief of staff, told the National Assembly’s defence committee in June 2019 that ‘securing the Niger Loop will take several years.’ He called for strategic patience, given the systemic nature of the Sahel crisis, and was pragmatic about war aims: ‘A soldier must be satisfied with preventing the worst.’
Restraint is now especially desirable as people, particularly in Mali, have gradually turned against France (5). In September 2019, a few months after Dogon militiamen massacred 130 Fula villagers at Ogossagou near the Burkina Faso border, a photo doctored to show the French army ‘plundering Mali’s gold’ reappeared. Another doctored image purported to show that French forces had supplied motorbikes to the jihadists. The accusation of looting mineral resources seems unsubstantiated: except for Algerian gas and uranium from Niger (its exploitation has become less profitable and may cease), France imports African hydrocarbons and minerals mainly from English-speaking Nigeria and Portuguese-speaking Angola. One study (6) showed there is no real correlation between the zones where France has intervened and its main economic interests in the region. Historian Michel Goya, a former colonel in the French marines, calls the suggestion a ‘fantasy’, Ould-Abdallah, an ‘aberration’, and Caroline Roussy of France’s Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) a ‘nonsensical conspiracy theory’.
However, the French army’s reputation is deteriorating: its soldiers tend to venture out of their high-security barracks only in armoured vehicles, wearing full protective equipment, which makes them safer, but scares the locals and discourages communication, and makes it hard to conquer hearts and minds, as advocated by counter-insurgency theorists. Boubacar Haidara, a lecturer at the University of Ségou in Mali, says many people find it difficult to believe ‘that the Barkhane forces and Minusma — given the considerable resources at their disposal — are really unable to reduce armed terrorist groups’ ability to do harm, or at least protect people from them’ (7).
Similar wariness surrounds France’s ‘scalping’ strategy: eliminations of rebel leaders by French special forces or drone attack are never followed up with the release of images or the victims’ identities. ‘Drones kill, but we don’t know who or why,’ writes journalist Rémi Carayol (8). On 5 January this year France claimed to have eliminated around 20 jihadist fighters in Mali’s Douentza region, but local NGOs accuse it of hitting a wedding party and want an investigation. In spite of procedures intended to prevent such mistakes, the risk of harming innocent civilians is real.
Boosting France’s reputation
Despite this, the French military retains some prestige from Operation Serval, generally considered a success. It is now learning from the experience of fighting a small-scale regional war that also demonstrates the combat-worthiness of equipment produced by French arms manufacturers, giving France an aura of European leadership in security, especially in conflicts to its south. But the costs are exploding: nearly €1bn annually; 17,000 soldiers on rotation each year, a quarter of the army’s combat troops; 55 killed and 300 wounded to date; and, politically, the taint of neo-colonialism.
President Emmanuel Macron mentioned an ‘adjustment’ to France’s effort in his message to the military on 19 January, but there’s no obvious good solution for Operation Barkhane. Relocating outside Mali or withdrawing entirely would free France of any direct responsibility, but would probably provide a way in for the jihadists and perhaps also Russia, Turkey or China. Continuing, as the French government reaffirmed it would, with the backing of the leaders of Mali’s coup, gives no guarantee, or even hope, of really improving the situation without adequate political and administrative support from local institutions.
The reinforcement option France activated in January 2020 — like President Barack Obama’s attempted surge in Afghanistan (and we know how well that went) — meant 550 more troops on the ground and maximum pressure on the ‘three borders’ region, but it has not changed the balance of power. Hopes are now focused on the Tabuka Task Force, a French idea that draws on special forces from EU countries, and on the Malian army, which has been reorganised yet again. It will probably be years before the baton can truly be passed on.
Researcher Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos believes this war is unwinnable (9) and says the indefinite presence of French soldiers in the Sahel and the spread of these conflicts ‘could lead some of these groups to take on a global dimension and seek revenge by attacking Europe’. A threat could come from Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group to Support Islam and Muslims, GSIM), Al-Qaida’s Sahel branch, which claimed responsibility for an attack on a military convoy on 28 December last year. This would completely subvert the logic of those French and African leaders who insist that France’s military involvement is vital to the stability of the whole of the Sahel, West Africa and even Europe.
France would not be in this position if it had not made so many political mistakes, especially in how it designates its enemies. Many researchers question the war-on-terror rhetoric, and think it is reductive and leads to strategic errors. It limits the understanding of phenomena in this region where ‘several motivations intersect, sometimes combine, often clash,’ says Alain Antil, of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). Antil distinguishes between armed struggle within an Islamic frame of reference, insurrection seeking reform of the state, and the violence used to change power relations between communities.
No single enemy
Laurent Contini of the Centre for Analysis, Planning and Strategy (CAPS), a thinktank within the French foreign ministry, points out that jihad is becoming endogenous, first by involving Fula communities, and now other ethnic groups, such as the Dogon, Mossi and Bambara. He too thinks the idea of a single enemy is unhelpful, as is lumping jihadists, independence fighters and drug traffickers together, which is common because of the porous and shifting borders between these categories, and between alliances of armed groups . Contini called for a serious reboot of France’s military presence in a 2018 ministry of foreign affairs review.
Montclos believes that emphasising the global jihadist threat is a way of justifying military interventions to the French public and other governments, but also gives local leaders a geopolitical boost. It ‘legitimises the establishment of exceptional regimes that breach the rule of law’. Montclos points to the impunity granted to Malian forces, whose atrocities against villagers have significantly increased recruitment to jihadist movements, which present themselves as the resistance to an occupation. He suggests they become entrenched when local people seek protection for survival, not primarily for religious reasons: presenting ‘jihadism’ as a threat imported from the Arab world and blaming terrorist acts on a radicalisation of Islam allows local governments to downplay their own failings. This prevents a more detailed analysis of threats and conflicts by cause, country and region, and prevents political crisis resolution.
France’s veto (‘We don’t talk to those who kill French people’) on Bamako’s desire for dialogue with some jihadist groups has not improved its image. Nor did Macron’s arrogance at the Pau summit in January 2020: African heads of state were summoned to a garrison town in France where soldiers killed in Mali had just been buried, and called on to publicly restate their request for help from the former colonial power. French troops should really have begun withdrawing from Mali in late 2013, handing over responsibility to the Malian military and African regional forces, which intervened in the wake of the French and later became part of Minusma. ‘It was easy at the time to disarm all groups,’ writes Normand, who thinks the Ouagadougou (2013) and Algiers (2015) accords ‘gave legitimacy to those who possessed a Kalashnikov’ (10).
The original mistake was ending Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011 through a Franco-British military intervention under the NATO flag, in defiance of France’s regional allies — ‘I found out about it from the radio,’ said Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou — and despite opposition from the African Union, which had attempted mediation. This began a civil war that has lasted almost 10 years, involving constant to-ing and fro-ing of arms and fighters drawing in the whole region, and further amplifying instability throughout the Sahel, according to Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, the G5 Sahel’s outgoing president. He believes resolving the Libyan crisis is a necessary precondition of finding a lasting solution to the regional crisis.