Mali Troop Withdrawal: Africa’s Afghanistan?

During the 76th United Nations General Assembly, Mali Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga spoke out against France’s decision to withdraw troops from his war-torn country. As a consequence, he stated the government has been seeking other partners to assist with security efforts. He has also called for a stronger UN mandate in its mission to Mali, stating, according to UN news, that the situation “should also prompt the United Nations to now have a more offensive posture on the field.” With the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, Mali might be headed down a similar path. 

French military involvement began in 2012, as the Mali government was crumbling from the Tuareg separatist movement and jihadists threats, according to the Atlantic Council. Labeled Operation Serval, French intervention was semi-successful in stopping the advance of threats. As time went on, the French began Operation Barkhane as a continuation of the previous campaign, beginning years of counter-terrorist operations. President Macron decided to de-escalate involvement in the region due to his desire of reforming French diplomacy in Africa after many years of unsatisfactory results, according to Foreign Policy. As a result, 2,000 of the 5,000 French troops currently stationed in Mali will leave by the end of the year. The government of Mali viewed this as a unilateral decision that will benefit France and leave Mali in a significantly worse state. However, Malian forces are better equipped and trained than they were almost ten years ago when French troops had to intervene to prevent a total collapse of the country. While this is reassuring, the same was said of Afghan troops, who were unable to resist the swift offensive of the Taliban.

Although local troops have been better trained and equipped to fight jihadists and separatists, it is a dangerous assumption to believe this will suffice in maintaining regional security. Conflicts in Mali have been escalating in the past few years, according to Foreign Policy. Removing thousands of soldiers could eliminate critical support that Malian Armed Forces need to counteract rebel and jihadist forces. The withdrawal could also be a future obstacle for French diplomatic efforts in the region. With this decision being unilateral, if Mali continues to deteriorate, countries in the region could blame it on a French attempt to preserve soldiers and resources. African governments may see France as unreliable, and regional allies such as Mali may be unwilling to engage with France due to fears of future betrayal. 

Understanding the failures and limitations of Operation Barkhane reveals French motivations in withdrawing from Mali. The conflict France aimed to defuse has been escalating over the past few years, with higher death tolls. According to Foreign Policy, 2,440 civilians were killed in Mali and bordering countries in 2020. Despite early success, the situation continued to worsen, with terrorist attacks occurring closer to the capital than at any point in the conflict, according to the Atlantic Council. In interviews with civil society and other community leaders, many stressed how France and other countries involved should engage on a more local level. The ethnic and regional divide between southerners and northerners makes it difficult as well. As stated by the Atlantic Council: “Local civic representatives often pointed to the communication deficit of Malian officials and the Malian army in rural areas where people may be afraid of their operations and plans, which creates yet another obstacle for state-building efforts.” France and other coalition countries cannot expect to resolve a conflict if the fear of locals participating in state-building projects is not heavily taken into account. Early success can be attributed to French forces using solely conventional methods to deal with jihadists and Tuareg rebels. However, despite this early success, the conflict shifted to a much more complex campaign of anti-terrorism. Conventional force may have still been useful, but certainly not enough to eradicate the extremism. France was using a hammer to solve issues calling for more intricate, delicate tools.

Becoming Africa’s Afghanistan does not have to be Mali’s fate. Some solutions could still be implemented to ensure the country does not collapse following French withdrawal. To achieve domestic order, the central government must attempt to foster peace with the separatists. Despite the multitude of Tuareg groups, the government must try to negotiate and compromise with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the main separatist movement. By doing so, it would relieve tensions from the North and allow the government to focus on jihadist groups. Areas in the north of the country have also been out of the government’s control, so negotiating a peace treaty with the MNLA should be the first step in reducing hostilities. The Tuareg independence movement comes from the severe differences between those in the North and the South of the country, and perhaps creating a separate nation may be the best path to peace. Although rebellion and violent revolt are condemnable, so is the neglect of ethnic minorities’ rights. If the Malian government wants to resolve the current conflicts, it should attempt to reach an agreement with the Tuareg.

Regional, Pan-African alliances could potentially be instrumental in achieving economic and political development for Mali. The Malian government needs to show, through strategic policy making, that it is a better leadership option than the extremist groups vying for power. By providing communities with more economic aid for development, those groups will begin to trust the government more, allowing for more cooperation while discouraging violence. 

The decision by the French government to remove troops from Mali is deeply concerning, especially given the results of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is made worse by the decision being against the wishes of the Malian government, which could not only mean further destabilization but the creation of obstacles for future French diplomacy in Africa. Despite the risks of premature withdrawal, the continued use of a French-resourced military force will never be a long-term solution to the problems of Mali. Attempting to achieve strategic alliances with secular groups to address the dangerous extremists may be a more effective goal for the central government.


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