On February 17, France and its European allies announced that they will begin withdrawing their troops from Mali after nearly 10 years. The move came on the back of growing tensions between France and the military government of Mali, signaling a major shift in relations.
This is the kernel of the opinion jointly published on Aljazeera by Ousmane Diallo of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University, and Oumar Ba, an assistant professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, USA.
France had been Mali’s primary partner in its fight against armed unrest since 2013. But the relations between the two countries started to deteriorate after Mali’s army led by Colonel Assimi Goita staged a coup in August 2020 and ousted democratically elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Initially, while pressuring the military junta for a swift return to civilian rule, France opted to continue its cooperation with Malian forces. However, the situation took a turn for the worse eight months later, when Goita staged a second coup and pushed out a civilian-led government appointed to oversee a transition period. In response, France first suspended its joint military-operations with Malian forces and then announced its decision to “draw down” its counterinsurgency campaign in Mali, known as Operation Barkhane.
This draw-down provoked Mali to publicly accuse France of training “terrorist-groups” in the Sahel, partner with Russia to deploy Russian Wagner mercenaries to the country and eventually expel the French ambassador.
Announcing its intention of retaining power for up to five years, the Malian military firmly turned public opinion against France by accusing its former partner of working with ECOWAS to undermine Goita’s efforts to rebuild institutions and stabilise the country. France found itself with no option but to withdraw its troops from Mali and relocate them elsewhere.
Growing into a 5,100-strong force at its peak, Operation Barkhane had been a key partner of not only regional armies but also MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission active in Mali since 2013.
The French-led counterterror operations in Mali and the wider region have also been causing much frustration and anger, due to their apparent inability to decisively defeat armed groups and shield civilians from violence.
Several interconnected factors turned the Malian public and other populations against Operation Barkhane and led to the failure of the French-led counterinsurgency efforts in the Sahel.
The ever-increasing number of international and regional military coalitions and counterinsurgency programmes also contributed to the failure of Operation Barkhane. Over the years, countless formations, from MINUSMA, G5 and Takuba to the European Union Training Mission, Coalition for the Sahel and P35, crowded the region. As this multi-headed military architecture repeatedly failed to bring stability and peace to the region, local populations started to lose faith in all existing interveners, and especially their apparent leader – France.
Beyond all this, however, the failure of Operation Barkhane was also a consequence of the failure of French policies in the Sahel. In its engagement with the region, France repeatedly put its geostrategic and economic interests first, and applied different governance principles in different countries, losing the trust of local governments and populations alike,
The accession to power of a new group of Malian elites, some of whom are Russophiles who studied in the Soviet Union, and others who are willing to talk to insurgents to end the bloodshed, only accelerated what was inevitable: a rift between Mali and France and a redrawing of the French military presence in the Sahel.
With more than 18,000 personnel, MINUSMA is currently the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world, but also the deadliest one, having sustained more than 260 fatalities.
Facing operational challenges in a vast and sparsely populated country, the UN force benefitted from the logistical support of Barkane, with whom it shared some facilities. With Barkane and Takuba – a smaller, European special operations force – leaving Mali, it remains to be seen how MINUSMA will adjust and continue to operate.
There is also a chance that the masses who rallied against the French military presence may now focus their attention on pushing out the UN peacekeeping mission. A study conducted in 2019 showed that Malians felt that MINUSMA “is no longer able to improve peace and stability in Mali.”
For France, leaving Mali does not equate to leaving the Sahel, obviously. With a plan to relocate troops to Niger’s capital Niamey, their strong presence in Chad and continued operations in Burkina Faso, this is a mere reshuffling of the French deployment in the region – a deployment that has been continuous since 1960 in Chad.
What is certain is that the withdrawal of French troops from Mali marks a geopolitical shift, in which French military presence is contested not only by the state but also by the national citizenries across the Sahel.
The deployment of Russian troops in Mali is symbolic of this loss of influence and grasp on the political and security developments in the region.