West Africa - SahelBlog AnalysisMissions Operations

The withdrawal of Mali: a sacred French defeat (v2)

(B2) France's flagship operation in Mali, Barkhane, and its European counterpart, the task force Takuba end in a fishtail. This is not a military stampede. But it is an inestimable political defeat. And a tremendous mess. Arrogance, the side giving lessons - even justified in terms of values ​​- are no longer supported in Africa. The Europeans, and especially the French, will have to change software.

Barkhane logistics at work (photo: Armed Forces Staff - Archives)

The four errors of Paris

The departure of the French soldiers from Mali is due, according to official statements, to the refusal of the democratic transition of the Malians. But it is the decision of the military junta to block the renewal of Takuba's workforce, to limit certain aerial movements (drones, planes, etc.) which is the trigger for the decision taken by the Élysée. Not the arrival of the junta. Otherwise it was in the summer of 2020, at the latest, that the decision to leave had to be made.

know how to leave on time

This departure is first and foremost the illustration of a defect in certain military operations: the refusal to adopt an exit strategy. In Afghanistan yesterday, in Mali today, there is always an excellent reason to stay. It's not that the exit strategy hasn't been thought through; it has not been implemented. The error is therefore not to leave now, but not to have decided to leave before (1). Heads up. Of his own free will.

A certain ambiguity

Since the coup in Mali, especially the second in August 2020, and the intensive condemnation of it by the French power, there was a real ambiguity. How to stay in a country whose government is considered "illegitimate" and "illegal" led by soldiers? How can we continue to cooperate politically and militarily with an army whose leaders are considered liable to prison? The situation was neither politically nor ethically tenable.

A pinch of arrogance

Malians, despite all their faults, are a "nice" people (NB: that is to say not aggressive with their neighbors). They are especially proud, rightly, of their history, of their past, that of having been the first empires of Africa, unified, while the Kingdom of France had to deal with all-powerful duchies and counties. It was therefore not necessary to publicly insult them as the French government, Emmanuel Macron, in the lead, assisted by the Minister for the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jean- Yves Le Drian. These remarks, even justifiable on the merits, are not said between States which respect each other. They did a lot of damage there. In addition to ideology, politics, there is a kind of personal injury to certain Malian political leaders, Francophiles. (Read : We have the right to make our security choices - Interview with Abdoulaye Diop). A little more humility never hurts power.

An obvious double standard

Especially since France, like the Europeans, is much less eloquent about other areas. In terms of democratic ethics in the world, France and the Europeans have, in fact, a contrasting attitude. An authoritarian, semi-military regime is widely tolerated in Egypt, Saudi Arabia (which is waging a bloody war in Yemen), the United Arab Emirates (for which the red carpet is rolled out). There is hardly a murmur when a son succeeds his father in Chad, in defiance of constitutional rules (which in legal terms is called a “coup d'etat”). But we lead a violent offensive verbally when it happens in Bamako. The argument of the double standard (often evoked wrongly) finds there an objective foundation.

A few lessons to remember

The departure of the French soldiers is not a simple situational fact. It could leave some traces.

Un powerful political signal

This withdrawal under pressure is the worst thing that could happen to the French army and to the French will to power. It is a powerful, disastrous political signal. It is the first time since Algeria and independence that French troops have been forced to leave because a local government has kicked them out. We can say: it's because of Wagner, the coup d'etat, etc. But everyone will remember that the Malians managed, without firing a single shot, to send off one of the most powerful armies in the world. The symbolism is not thin.

A fundamental movement

What is happening in Mali is not unique. It looks like a larger bottom move. Everywhere in Africa, arises a claim of sovereignty, to ensure its own control of security, of independence. This happens in the Central African Republic (3), in Libya, in Somalia... (4). The African Union itself no longer wants to see turnkey declarations imposed on it, as in the past, where the Europeans put in what interests them (the fight against immigration, for example), whereas the priority for Africans are elsewhere, in freedom of movement, control of their natural resources, investments. (5).

A semi-military failure

Admittedly, the original operation, Serval, launched in 2013, was a success: repelling the rebels from the North on their reduced. But the next operation, Barkhane, ends with a much more mixed feeling. Without success. It failed to defeat the rebels, terrorists and jihadists. On the contrary. Like a constantly reborn hydra, the more the French "neutralize" (a polite term for "kill") rebels and terrorists, the more hostility and recruitment they arouse. Their number is estimated at the same figure as in 2013. And the wave of terrorism has now spread over a much larger area, from the North to the Center of Mali, and as far as neighboring countries (Benin, Togo, Niger...). We can therefore speak of a military semi-failure (6).

How to conduct a truly counter-terrorist operation

A reflection must be born on the way of carrying out anti-terrorist operations abroad. Is it necessary to have such a large military footprint (5000 men)? Wouldn't a lighter operation, with more appropriate means, more investigators, police and gendarmes, alongside their Malian counterparts, ultimately be more effective, more accepted because more discreet? Isn't there a moment when you have to know how to engage in 'negotiation' with certain groups, rather than hammering home: “we don't negotiate with terrorists”?

The end of an expeditionary era?

The end of Barkhane in 2022 – like the end of the NATO operation in Afghanistan in 2021 – perhaps marks the end of an era. It puts an end to Western interventions which are encysted in the national landscape, under the pretext of the fight against terrorism, and of which we no longer really know either the temporality or the objective sought. It could also have repercussions at European level. When France asks its allies to help it in a national operation, they will perhaps think twice about it, asking for more solid guarantees. It could also call into question the way of carrying out operations in coalition, and not within the framework of an organization. It is therefore far from trivial.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. On this point, the lighter European operations — often more criticized for that — stem from a more methodical spirit. When EUFOR Chad set up in eastern Chad in 2008 for one year. And the deadline is respected within a few months, having stabilized the area (Read: The military stabilization operation in eastern Chad and the CAR "EUFOR Tchad RCA" (28 January 2008 – 15 March 2009). Same a few years later with theoperation EUFOR RCA centered on the city of Bangui. Eventually with some success, and with very limited means (a few hundred men).
  2. Germany, which is the region's leading economic partner (ahead of France), behaved much more balanced, and certainly less outrageous.
  3. Lire: Faced with Wagner in the Central African Republic, Europe is withdrawing. Russia: 1 point
  4. The same claim exists in the Horn of Africa, or the Gulf of Guinea, where the Europeans want to fight against piracy where the Somalis or Senegalese face a phenomenon of 'looting' of their waters and illegal fishing. Read : Indo but not the Pacific. Europe is reviewing its maritime ambitions downwards. Operation Atalanta reconfigured?
  5. The hardening of Europeans on immigration must also be analyzed as one of the factors of this African claim. Read : It's 'goodbye' time for Federica Mogherini. Success, half-satisfaction, and a little anger
  6. The French soldiers who died in Mali did not die "for nothing" as some say. They have during these years managed to control the risk on the country.

Revised 18.2 on form (turns of phrase) and last concluding paragraph. + Precision on the concept of "nice" people and two words of history on Mali.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).