Mali is France’s Afghanistan, But With a Difference


In a recent editorial in Le Monde, French journalist Christophe Ayad draws disturbing parallels between the French military operations in Mali — which will reach their five-year mark in January — and America’s involvement in Afghanistan. At first glance the comparison is compelling, and in some important ways, accurate. Yet these two interventions present some fundamental differences that make the Afghanistan case likely more intractable than Mali’s, and give reason for optimism in France.

Ayad’s argument relates to the course of the wars and the apparent bind in which the American and French militaries now find themselves. Ayad observes that in both cases a lightning offensive gave way to a grinding counter-insurgency. In neither case can one now discern an alternative to continuing indefinitely to pay in blood and treasure to prop up governments that frequently act in ways contrary to good sense or good strategy. One can, in fact, blame those governments, as many critics do, but Ayad insists on Western militaries’ fundamental inability to do what they’re being asked to do in countries like Afghanistan and Mali. They have, he argues, neither “the mandate, the vocation, nor, finally, the qualifications for reconstructing the States in which they are intervening.” They “no longer know what to do” and have to choose between hunkering down in bunkers to prevent useless losses while becoming an army of occupation, or conducting raids to intimidate the enemy but risk accidents and ambushes like that which took the life lives of four American soldiers in Niger in October. Winning “hearts and minds” through civil-military engagements is supposed to be a third option, but, Ayad asserts, this is not really the job of soldiers, “as we saw in Afghanistan, where dozens of billions of dollars were spent for nothing.”

Ayad is largely correct. Both the United States and France now seem stuck in intractable wars, frustrated by the apparent fruitlessness of their best efforts. The Afghan and Malian governments, moreover, bear a large portion of the responsibility for the wars’ failures. Both have squandered the good will afforded them by their people through abuses, corruption and gross ineptitude. Often their leaders appear uninterested in even trying to win, or unaware that Rome burns while they fiddle (though admittedly in this regard current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is a vast improvement over his predecessor, Hamid Karzai). The net result in both countries is that the situation has been worsening, and there is little reason to think either Washington or Paris has a good plan for turning things around.

There are, however, some important differences between the two cases that give one at least a glimmer of hope for the French.  First, notwithstanding Ayad’s assertion that Western forces are unqualified, the French military in Mali knows well the environment in which they are operating and the people with whom they are interacting. The French military has been involved in the region since the 19th century, and although their activities have drastically changed (from conquest to training and advice), this almost continuous involvement has given them a knowledge of both the human and the physical terrain that the United States lacked in Afghanistan. While such knowledge is far from perfect and comes with some baggage — in the form of perceptions of neo-colonialism and resentment toward the ever-present French — the learning curve is certainly less steep for French soldiers and leaders than their American counterparts.

Second, France benefits from its ability to act with and through the security services of Mali and its neighbors, who are willing, if not the most capable, allies in the fight. Fighters in Mali frequently cross borders, but wherever they go, they have to contend with security services that coordinate effectively with the French. Enhancing that coordination is one objective of France’s scheme to develop a joint “Sahel G-5 force” drawing on the militaries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

Third, and relatedly, there is no Pakistan in the Sahel. There is no country providing Islamist fighters support and the benefits of a safe haven, no regional spoiler to steer the conflict in directions that it sees as beneficial. Libya’s role as a power intent on influencing Sahel politics vanished with the fall of Qaddafi, even though the effects of that country’s chaotic internal situation are still felt throughout the region. Algeria’s role is gradually fading along with its now 80-year old president. And in any case, while in the past both competed for regional dominance and at times fostered instability to advance their own interests, neither tolerated Islamist militants — a far cry from Pakistan’s role in enabling Afghan insurgents.

Are these differences sufficient for the French to help turn the situation around? A key question is first to understand what France is trying to achieve in Mali, and how it hopes to end its intervention. A common French exit strategy is to hand over the situation to a U.N. mission, once it has established a modicum of stability. In Mali, the United Nations is already present through the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission but has been experiencing dramatic casualties — earning it the little-envied title of “world’s most dangerous mission” — in an environment where there is little peace to keep. Thus France, like the United States in Afghanistan — will have to focus on cultivating the capabilities of local security forces in the hopes that they will one day stand on their own.

Here Ayad’s specific complaint that Western forces are not skilled at building states rings true. That is simply not what they’re good at. Regardless, in both Afghanistan and Mali victory will require far more than military efforts. There have to be political solutions, economic development, and vastly improved governance. The French know this. They state openly that their strategy rests on the three legs of security, politics, and development. The challenge is to follow through and go beyond policy statements; France, like the United States, tends to focus on military matters despite official policy largely because the security piece is, overall, less complex or at least easier for many governments to act upon.

This brings us to another fundamental difference between the two wars. France has more at stake, given the direct relationship between stability in the Sahel and France’s own well-being. The Sahel is France’s backyard. Terrorist groups in the Sahel directly threaten France. Political and economic instability in the region feed the refugee crisis. France also has economic interests in the region as well as large numbers of nationals residing there (8,000 in Mali alone). The United States in contrast, faced a direct threat in Afghanistan from al-Qaeda, but not necessarily from the rest of Afghanistan’s militants. Failure to stabilize Mali — and, more broadly, the Sahel — could have dramatic repercussions on France’s homeland.

A greater stake does not necessarily translate to a higher chance of success, but it does make France more likely to make the kind of comprehensive, long-term effort success requires. On the other hand, France, unlike the United States, lacks the resources to conduct a “surge” and is struggling to maintain its current level of commitment, which stands at roughly 4,000. France can’t “go home,” but it can’t “go big” either. In its own war on terrorism, France is fighting on two fronts — Mali and the French homeland, where up to 10,000 soldiers (which, combined with the 4,000 in the Sahel, corresponds to almost 20 percent of France deployable force of 77,000) are deployed to secure sensitive sites and events. France’s way out of Mali will have to rely on novel solutions — more political than military, more long-term than immediate, and more complex than a mere doubling down on a failing effort. This need to be creative may be the key to avoiding another Afghanistan.


Stephanie Pezard is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Michael Shurkin is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Image: French Armed Forces