WHAT HAPPENED? – THE STRAW THAT BROKE THE CAMEL’S BACK
In a statement on 17 February 2022, French President Macron announced the withdrawal of French troops from Mali – ending a nearly decade-long effort to fight the spread of terrorism in the country. This decision is the result of an escalated diplomatic crisis between the two countries over the fact that the current transitional authorities in Mali have deployed private military contractors from the Russian-backed Wagner Group. Amongst others, the decision was also influenced by the military junta’s announcement to extend the transition period back to democratic rule to 2025, just weeks before elections due in February 2022. Therefore, as Captain Jérôme Chevalier, French Defence Attaché to Sweden, put it: The termination of all military cooperation with Mali is a matter very much political in nature. The country is isolating itself from its neighbours and partners and failed to live up to its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). However, the fallout from the French withdrawal is expected to leave a security vacuum that the Malian Armed Forces (MAF) cannot fill, says security expert Delina Goxho based in Niamey, Niger. The EU’s announcement in April to suspend all military training for the MAF as part of its European Training Mission to Mali (EUTM) only exacerbates this security vacuum. But as previously claimed, is European engagement in the Sahel really coming to an end?
"French withdrawal is expected to leave a security vacuum that the Malian Armed Forces (MAF) cannot fill"
– Delina Goxho
SHIFTED ALLIANCES, NOT SO MUCH CHANGED AGENDAS
No. European military engagement in the region continues – albeit not with Mali – but the events described above require a realignment of the current efforts. That is, the relocation of resources formerly located in Mali while both considering and weighing the consequences this has for other current missions in the country as well as for the local population. Both can already be observed.
"Some countries lack the ‘passion stratégique’ for such an endeavour"
– Captain Jérôme Chevalier
When announcing the halt of EUTM Mali, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also underscored the importance of the Sahel region for the EU and assured increased support. This is further outlined in the new EU Strategic Compass 2022 for Security and Defence. Nevertheless, as Captain Chevalier pointed out, launching another EUTM in neighbouring Niger or possibly Burkina Faso requires EU consensus: Some countries lack the ‘passion stratégique’ for such an endeavour. France, however, has strong incentives to remain present in the region, as Delina Goxho explains: “There exists a strong political liaison between France and Francophone West Africa, which is home to around 60,000 French people. By controlling terrorist activity there, France hopes to avoid terror within its own borders and through stabilisation efforts it wants to reduce the migration flow directed towards Europe.” As such, it was always intended to redeploy Operation Barkhane (as well as Task Force Takuba), an undertaking approved – but variously appreciated – by Niger’s National Assembly on 22 April. Withdrawal from Mali is set to be completed in June 2022 and Paris and Niamey are working to create a framework for Barkhane based on the needs of Niger’s armed forces, says Captain Chevalier. He further stresses that France is very keen to promote and enlarge the role of Task Force Takuba as an embodiment of the EU’s strategic autonomy. This is understandable given that France, by far the most dominant European player in the Sahel, wants to gradually reduce its presence. However, portrayed as a symbol of European defence, the EU special forces unit is still very much dependent on France facilitating its functionality and its future role at this moment in time remains unclear.
This is probably the most elusive and at the same time most important point to be aware of after the termination of all military cooperation with Mali. Ulf Laessing, Head of the Sahel Program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation based in Bamako, Mali, paints a picture of the current dynamics unfolding in the country: We can already observe a deteriorating security situation. Jihadists from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have launched a new offensive in northern Mali and the once-fragmented Tuareg ex-rebels are reuniting – officially to negotiate with the military junta, but certainly also with ulterior motives to position themselves to exploit the growing security vacuum. Overall, he emphasises that Mali is not prepared for what is to come. The French withdrawal also poses logistical problems for the UN stabilisation mission MINUSMA. Ulf Laessing explains: The French exercised a kind of protective function for MINUSMA, mainly by taking on the role of air support escort for the mission. Additionally, by managing the military hospital and airport in Gao, a town in northern Mali, the French had a stronghold in the area that will now disappear completely, causing additional restrictions for MINUSMA. This does not go unnoticed in MINUSMA’s contributing countries. In Germany, for example, the parliament will vote this week on the government’s proposal to extend its MINUSMA mandate by another year and even increase the number of deployed military personnel in response to the current situation. Another aspect is the impact on the local population. During a conversation in March, Captain Chevalier stated that gathered intelligence presumed human rights abuses by the MAF, accompanied by the Wagner group. Unfortunately, this was confirmed and visible for the international community in late March when reports of a massacre in the town of Moura made the news.
"Mali is not prepared for what is to come"
– Ulf Laessing
Continued European presence, although redefined?
The future of European interventions in the Sahel is uncertain, but the French withdrawal offers a gateway to restructure current efforts in the region. On the one hand, for example, it offers an opportunity to redefine the EU as a security actor through stronger commitment for Task Force Takuba. The current ‘coalition of the willing’ could become the prototype of a European force. Another opportunity is to forge new partnerships, such as with the Gulf of Guinea countries, which are likely to play a more significant role for European interventions. On the other hand, Niger, the new ally for European interventions and Operation Barkhane, is saturated with a number of security actors already stationed in the country – what does this mean in the long run? And also, MINUSMA faces an increasingly difficult environment to operate in: with the withdrawal of French troops from Mali, it loses important logistical support. At the same time, the continuation of the mission is essential in view of the serious human rights violations – how can we deal with these shortcomings? Overall, it is important that the consequences of redeployment are not only considered, but also adequately addressed.
With special thanks, comments provided by:
Delina Goxho (@delinagoxho), Independent Security Expert – Niamey, Niger.
Ulf Laessing (@ulflaessing), Head of the Sahel Programme at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation – Bamako, Mali.
Captain Jérôme Chevalier (@FRDefenceSweden), French Defence Attaché to Sweden – Stockholm, Sweden.
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Daugalies, S. (2022) Changing Alliances in Mali: The Future of European Interventions in the Sahel, IDRN, 19 May. Available at: https://idrn.eu/changing-alliances-in-mali-the-future-of-european-interventions-in-the-sahel/ [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].