What the US can learn from France’s withdrawal from Mali
French President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement Thursday that France is withdrawing from Mali represents a dangerous failure of not just French policy but American policy as well. It is also a victory for Russia. Worst of all, it bodes poorly for Malians themselves. Washington needs to rethink its own strategy in the region and take on board some of the lessons from the French experience.
Per Macron’s announcement, France is pulling its forces from Mali and moving them to Niger next door, from where they will continue the fight. They will focus on Niger as well as Burkina Faso and the “Gulf of Guinea” states, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo, which increasingly are threatened by jihadists. When the French leave Mali so too will the European Union (EU) training missions that have been in the country since 2013. Also at risk is the large United Nations mission in Mali, which depends on French backing. Its European contingents, which provide the mission critical capabilities, are likely to leave in France’s train.
Although the French speak of a “re-articulation” of their military as if it were a normal thing to do, their departure comes after a rancorous diplomatic split with Mali’s populist junta, which took power in a coup in 2020 and has embraced rising anti-French sentiment.
The French, to be clear, are not leaving because of pressure from insurgents but because Mali’s junta wants them out, as do large numbers of Malians. This comes nine years after Malians welcomed the French army as heroes when France intervened to save the country from a jihadist offensive that threatened the capital, Bamako.
Many Malians are convinced that they will be better off without France. There has been growing resentment toward the French stemming in part from divergent views and a misunderstanding of French motives and French decisions, as well as cognitive dissonance regarding how the country could be falling apart despite the presence of up to 5,100 French troops backed by a half-dozen fighter jets operating in Mali and the surrounding region.
The belief that France is working with the insurgents and seeking to divide the country, motivated by a desire to perpetuate their presence and, allegedly, expropriate Mali’s natural resources, has become commonplace. The French have committed several errors, among them a failure to engage sufficiently with Malians, perhaps taking for granted either the unimportance of public opinion or that Malians understood that they needed French help. There also was another factor: Russia.
Russia has been amplifying anti-French discourses by means of disinformation disseminated via social media and state-owned media like Sputnik. Mali’s junta last year contracted with Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization, which began deploying personnel in late December. There now are an estimated 1,000 Wagner personnel in Mali, according to French sources. Wagner’s presence has encouraged Malians to believe they do not need France or the EU, and that the junta does not need to heed international pressure to hold elections and transition to democratic rule.
Regrettably, Mali is unlikely to thrive without the French and the Europeans, whose aid clearly was insufficient but certainly added up to more than what Russia offers. Worse, Malian leaders, comforted by the Russian presence, probably will see no need to take on any of the serious problems that afflict their county and drive the insurgency.
This was the same problem they had with the French, i.e. thinking that because of France, they were safe to conduct business as usual. Wagner can be expected to make matters worse, given its penchant for killing civilians in the Central African Republic. The killing of civilians by Malian government forces and associated militias already has helped radicalize Malian communities.
The jihadists clearly benefit from France’s departure. So does Russia, although how, beyond the joy of sticking a finger in France’s eye, is less clear. Money may be one motive, or perhaps instrumentalizing migrants or sabotaging France’s project of using the conflict to build an EU security policy.
France from its new positions in West Africa might still make important contributions to the fight against jihadists, especially if it learns valuable lessons from the failure in Mali — lessons about minding relations and communicating with their partners and ensuring that they have shared objectives and are all on the same page. They must take to heart and articulate the need for their partner countries in the region urgently to address the numerous governance and other problems that make their societies vulnerable to jihadism.
Americans also must consider their next steps. The U.S. government’s policy so far has been to support France no matter what while pursuing the usual security assistance program, which predictably enough has not helped. A more independent U.S. policy would be appropriate, with the understanding that ultimately a more effective policy would be in France’s interests as well as Africa’s.
Michael Shurkin is director of Global Programs at 14 North Strategies and the founder of Shurbros Global Strategies. He served as a political analyst in CIA and was a senior political scientist at the RAND corporation.