It was difficult to disagree with France’s intervention in Mali’s civil war in 2013, and hard to dispute its effects. Various jihadist factions including al-Qaeda, after first allying with and then repudiating the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), had begun to capture great territory and impose barbaric rule on millions.
The jihadists had occupied the ancient capital of Timbuktu and begun to destroy its antique treasures. They had, as is their style, banned music. Al-Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, the Islamists’ police chief, mounted such a ‘reign of terror’ that he is now before the International Criminal Court in the Hague charged with war crimes.
Fighting these people and pushing them back was a moral mission in which many countries were delighted to partake. But France did the most and accordingly took the credit.
Its aircraft hit jihadi targets and its troops assisted Malian forces in the retaking of towns. All of the country’s major settlements soon fell once more under there sphere of the Malian state. Operation Serval was a notable and creditable success, something France’s governing class was hardly shy of mentioning.
But taking back and holding the major settlements of Mali did not solve the problem. The Tuareg opposition to the state continued unabated, and has been addressed by a series of unsatisfactory and not entirely effective ceasefires. And across the Sahel, Islamist forces, including al-Qaeda and offshoots from the Islamic State’s centre in the Levant, were gathering their strength and biding their time.
A larger, pan-national counter-insurgency mission was needed in the Sahel, and France was the only foreign force willing to commit men in large numbers. Even then, this was a light-touch operation, largely worked out in coordination with local states and their militaries. France’s Operation Barkhane involved 6,000 troops at its height, with groups of soldiers scattered between a number of bases. Its forces mounted successful raids on jihadist outposts and provided logistical support to local governments.
In the course of these missions, French forces suffered a slow trickle of casualties, but carried on fighting because the losses of the jihadists were far greater. The fact that French forces were in the area also helped others. French troops and aircraft arrived to support American and Nigerien special forces who were subject to a terrible ambush by ISIS in October 2017. Several of the Americans and Nigeriens were killed, but the arrival of French aircraft likely saved the lives of those trapped.
But despite these successes, the story of France’s Sahel campaign has been one of rising and falling tides. Jihadist forces have built up their strength in the region, and have conducted bombings of French convoys as well as attacks on the states France is engaged in supporting.
In Mali and other countries, the French presence has hardly been universally popular. And in France too, there is opposition to waging an expansive military campaign against a number of adversaries across a wide geographical area. When France sent more troops to Mali in January, both Malian activists and a number in France reacted with irritation and incredulity.
Even among allies, there is disagreement. France finds itself pushed and pulled in a number of directions, including by the United States, whose desire to end foreign entanglements endlessly contradicts with the American desire to seek out and destroy its most threatening enemies. France has infrequently had to chasten American officials who claim simply to want out.
In the American press, the self-serving term ‘forever war’ – invented to describe the American experience in Afghanistan (and decidedly not the Afghan experience of the same) – is now freely applied to France’s campaigns in the Sahel, and to American involvement by association. The common view in European, African and north American capitals is that French forces are chasing insurgents around the desert, occasionally getting into scrapes, and altogether doing very little.
This is naturally an unfair conclusion, but it is pervasive. And so a military coup in Mali, which began last month, could hardly have come at a worse time. It finds global opinion of France’s role in the region at a nadir.
The Malian armed forces, the partners of French soldiers and their companions on many an operation, mutinied last month and overthrew the civilian government French troops was meant to defend. The jihadists never got to the capital of Bamako, but within days of these mutinies beginning, the army had deposed the president and the prime minister and had functionally taken control. Now in power, they don’t appear to be going anywhere.
All Mali’s partners and friends could do was expel the new regime from the African Union and, irony of ironies, from the Francophonie, an organisation of French-speaking states upon whose cultural ties French military action in Africa is often implicitly hung.
It was not a jihadist insurgency that overthrew a Saharan government, but a military coup, something France, for all its forces in the region, was ill-equipped to prevent or to foresee. And so a mission which began with triumph and the salvation of Mali finds itself unsure of how to proceed, after six years of fighting jihadists, but not necessarily shoring up African states.
This piece was originally published in The Critic.