Why France Failed in Mali
On Feb. 17, President Emmanuel Macron announced his decision to withdraw French forces from Mali. These troops form part of Operation Barkhane, a French anti-jihadist operation primarily focused on Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. A linked European special forces task force, Takuba, will withdraw as well, with both groups recentering their activities in neighboring Niger. This follows a major escalation in tensions between Paris and Bamako in recent months, which included exchanges of insults culminating in the expulsion of the French ambassador.
Nonetheless, France’s departure from Mali overwhelmingly represents a French failure. What began in 2013 as Operation Serval, a relatively clearly defined, locally popular, and successful operation aimed at clearing jihadists from their urban strongholds in the country’s north, has turned into a prolonged conflict which France has no capacity to win in any meaningful sense.
The French decision to transform Serval into Barkhane in August 2014 aimed to stabilize a regional order under threat. More specifically, Barkhane has looked to contain the spread of jihadist groups while regional militaries, aided by France, the European Union, the United States, and others, improve their operational capacities.
Despite a continuous French military presence since 2013, conflict has spread from Mali to Niger and Burkina Faso. Meanwhile, regional militaries seem no better prepared to effectively counter the jihadist threat. Indeed violence levels in the three countries have risen each year since 2017, reaching over 2,500 incidents in 2021 and nearly 6,000 deaths.
While it may be excessive to expect a French operation that peaked at just 5,100 troops to effectively check the spread of regional interlocking civil wars, France has not accomplished its aims. What accounts for the French failure?
Broadly speaking, the answer boils down to a combination of unalterable structural features of France’s intervention, a misunderstanding of local conflict dynamics, serious political mistakes, and operational errors.
Structural features lying outside of French control include the illegitimacy of regional governments (a problem the French presence has tended to exacerbate) and the violence of their security forces. Moreover, French understandings of jihadist groups as primarily terrorists rather than sociologically complex insurgencies have placed ideological blinders on a deeper grasp of regional conflicts.
France has also committed a number of political mistakes, including throwing up obstacles to negotiation efforts and a broader preference for ephemeral stability over accountable governance. These have been compounded by operational errors, notably through collaboration with armed groups which both undermines local state authority and worsens ethnic tensions.
All of these factors lead one to the unfortunate conclusion that France’s strategy has not only failed to achieve its aims, but has likely done more harm than good to regional stability and governance.
Barkhane Insulated Rulers from the Effects of Their Own Actions
Despite rhetoric emphasizing the importance of state-building and the need for a “civilian surge,” the French effort in the Sahel has revolved entirely around a military-centric strategy with politics the domain of local partner states. These partner states have neither the interest nor resources to undertake the necessary transformations to address the underlying drivers of insurgency and conflict.
The reasons for this are largely structural. Despite clear power asymmetries and a long post-colonial history of meddling in the domestic affairs of its former colonies, France has little capacity to commit local governments to policies that could help restore their legitimacy. While partly this is about venal local politicians, it also relates to the limited resources available to state actors to invest in giving peripheral regions a beneficial stake in national-level governance.
Ironically, the presence of Operation Barkhane reinforces the general problem as it has afforded a certain level of protection to national-level ruling classes from the threat of jihadist insurgents. This has given regional leaders, but especially in Mali — at least before its 2021 coup d’état — a false sense of security and absolved them of the need to reform their political systems.
More concretely, France’s close association with actors such as the late Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta undermines the legitimacy of France’s client leaders. Anti-French sentiment born of an unpopular and ineffective Keïta’s apparent dependence on France played an important role in the mass demonstrations that sparked an August 2020 military coup against the president. It also served as the justification for a subsequent May 2021 coup overthrowing Mali’s transitional civilian leadership, ostensibly, and in part, because of their alleged closeness to Paris.
This, combined with massive influxes of international security assistance, means that army leaderships can seize on popular discontent, including against France, to grab power. The Jan. 24 coup in Burkina Faso now means that, along with Mali and Chad, three of France’s major counter-terrorism partners in the Sahel are regimes with questionable regional and international legitimacy.
The irony in the Malian case is that France has suffered in part from backing an unpopular Keïta and subsequently opposing a far more popular military junta.
Simplistic Perspectives on the Jihadist Threat
From the beginning, French policymakers have lacked a clear-eyed view of the threat to regional stability. Obscured by a rhetoric emphasizing “terrorism” and foregrounding jihadist organizations and their roles as local franchises of al-Qaeda or ISIL, there remains a failure to grasp the complexity of the Sahel’s conflict environment.
Jihadist groups serve as the focal point of rural anti-state insurgencies. Their success at recruitment and territorial control stems not simply from intimidation, terror, or ideological attraction but also through promises of protection from abusive state security forces. This in turn, and over the course of time, has been layered onto more localized conflicts over land, grazing rights, and customary chiefly authorities, among other questions.
These struggles over political control and resource distribution help generate ethnic conflict as Dogon, Peuls, Tuaregs, Arabs, and other communities organize militias and resort to violence in response to the violence of both jihadist groups and vigilantes. Jihadists only succeed in these environments to the extent that they can build alliances with varied communities and their leaderships.
As is so often the case in civil wars, national-level conflicts do not always neatly align with those fought at local levels. What this means in practical terms is that the French decapitation approach — including major successes in killing prominent jihadist leaders such as Abdelmalek Droukdel and Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi — and broader search-and-destroy operations could only have a marginal effect on the evolution of the conflict.
Politically, this has translated into a French refusal to countenance negotiations between regional states — especially Mali — and jihadist groups. While the hopes that some invest in such negotiations may be overblown, at the local level they are critical in de-escalating violence. Furthermore, any strategy aiming to undo the political coalitions that sustain jihadist groups requires talks at all levels.
Although French opposition to dialogue has not prevented informal feelers or local-level arrangements, it sends a message that France is not interested in a political solution to the conflict.
Operational Mistakes: Picking Bad Partners
What’s more, apart from broader French commitments to states locally viewed as illegitimate, predatory, and violent, the French military has made at least two specific operational errors that weakened its own political foundations.
The first goes back to the beginning of French involvement in Mali, with Operation Serval in 2013. As French forces completed their sweep of Mali’s north, evicting jihadist groups from major urban areas and undoing their territorial control, they partially renewed an older partnership with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). This Tuareg secessionist group was the main initiator of the 2012 rebellion that, within months, led to jihadist control over much of northern Mali.
Since the MNLA often had tense relations with its jihadist counterparts, both French military and intelligence representatives saw them as a potentially useful ally, especially given their local knowledge. Despite the opposition of French diplomats, these officials hoped to be able to secure the MNLA’s assistance in suppressing jihadists and recovering seven French hostages captured in previous years by regional jihadists.
This has led the Malian government to complain frequently, and increasingly in public, about French association with “terrorists.” For Malian authorities, the secessionist MNLA and its later offshoots are just as much “terrorist” organizations as their erstwhile jihadist allies.
Additionally, the initial French refusal to allow Malian government troops into the northern town of Kidal — ostensibly because of the (very real) risk of violent reprisals against the local population — and Bamako’s subsequent difficulties in establishing government control there, have fuelled Malian nationalist anger against France.
For many Malians, there existed a clear contradiction between French collaboration with the MNLA and support for the Malian state. This issue has helped poison Franco-Malian relations ever since, with multiple commentators referring to it as France’s “original sin.”
The French military’s association with non-state armed groups took a potentially more dangerous turn in 2017 and 2018. As the jihadist insurgency picked up steam in central Mali and the region that borders Niger and Burkina Faso, Barkhane began collaborating directly with government-linked Tuareg and Daoussahak militias. This allowed for significant successes against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara elements both in Mali and Niger.
However, these militias also committed serious atrocities against Peul communities (also referred to as Fulani). French support for these militias played an indirect role in facilitating and even legitimizing this kind of ethnic violence, as Peuls throughout the Sahel have been unjustly stigmatized as jihadist collaborators.
Even though, following press revelations, Barkhane ceased its collaboration with ethnic militias, its broader coordination with regional security forces has continued to associate the operation with major purveyors of violence against civilians in the region.
Political Failures Perpetuate the Instability France Is Trying to Prevent
Regionally, France’s seemingly inconsistent diplomacy has generated anger. Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop recently expressed this with the complaint that “France applauds coups d’état when they are in its interests, and condemns them when they are not in its interests.” Indeed, while French representatives, including Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian have frequently pointed to the Malian junta’s illegitimacy, they have remained fully supportive of an unconstitutional political transition in Chad.
In some ways, this actually reflects a broader and historic consistency in France’s regional approach, which tends to privilege stability over democracy. For example, a stable Chad has been central to French security policy in Africa at a number of points in the post-colonial era, resulting in several major military interventions. The current troop presence, now part of Operation Barkhane, dates to a 1986 military intervention aiming to protect the dictatorship of Hissène Habré against Libyan expansion.
Most recently, former President Idriss Déby’s regime became a key player in France’s regional strategy. Chadian troops from Déby’s elite presidential guard, an ethnic militia, have served as effective auxiliaries against jihadist groups, even as they form the backbone of a repressive regime at home.
Déby’s death in April 2021, apparently in battle against a Libya-based rebel group (a group, ironically, that was allied with French-supported Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar), was followed by an unconstitutional transfer of power to one of his sons, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, the commander of the ethnic militia. The transition, which has dragged out and includes a flexible end date, has received firm French backing and financial support.
The reason for this is not hard to discern. Chadian stability — as measured by regime continuity and friendliness towards Paris rather than broader social considerations — is important for France’s regional strategy. The imagined alternatives — civil war, state collapse, and the expansion of regional jihadism — justifies for French policymakers their investment in the long-term maintenance of a viciously repressive state whose practices have generated cycles of rebellions for decades.
Apart from a history of helping to create the kind of instability it has aimed to prevent, a major problem with a reliance on dictators such as the Débys is that it projects an image of hypocrisy, fuelling regional resentment.
Rising Anti-French Sentiment
All of the above has contributed to increasing politically significant anti-French sentiment across the region. This is not simply or even primarily a product of Russian disinformation campaigns, wild conspiracy theories, or the rhetoric of opportunistic politicians and other public figures (all of which abound). Instead, its deeper roots lie in French support for political orders whose legitimacy is declining. All of this, of course, builds on nearly 150 years of colonial and post-colonial history of France as the dominant regional power.
The most glaring example of this relationship in recent years was Macron’s decision to “invite” the leaders of the G5 Sahel — Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad — to the French city of Pau in early 2020. This stemmed in part from increasing anger among French policymakers over anti-French rhetoric indulged in by some Sahelian politicians, including prominent ministers. Many Sahelian commentators viewed Macron’s invitation as a sort of neocolonial summoning of clients. At the meeting Macron insisted on “clear and committed” public declarations of support for Operation Barkhane by African leaders. Though he managed to obtain these, many resented his approach. The then-Burkinabe President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré notably complained that Macron’s tone “posed problems.”
In turn, this rise in anti-French feeling has threatened the political foundations of France’s military presence. It has forced regional governments to navigate the difficult tension between a need for French support and the imperative of not being viewed as French pawns. The Malian junta has mobilized anti-French feeling as a way to legitimate its rule domestically as it faces regional — and French — pressure for an accelerated transition back to civilian rule.
Malian Prime Minister Choguel Maïga in particular has consistently resorted to harsh anti-French rhetoric in recent months. Most recently, he accused France of resorting to “political, media, and diplomatic terrorism against Mali.” French officials have responded to Malian “provocations” by referring to the junta as illegitimate.
From the French perspective, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this sharp deterioration in relations is the clear Malian turn towards Russia and an alleged agreement with the Wagner Group mercenary outfit. While Bamako has portrayed its outreach to Russia as a sovereign decision to diversify its partnerships, the move both plays to domestic anti-French feeling and serves to put political pressure on its encumbering French ally.
A New Strategy?
Unfortunately for Paris and Bamako alike, relations seem to have reached a point of no return between the current authorities. The junta’s clear desire to stay in power as long as possible fundamentally conflicts with French and broader regional pressure for a rapid transition to a civilian and constitutional political order. This contradiction may be irresolvable, particularly in the context of the toxic and escalating tensions between the two sides.
Nevertheless, the slow pace of France’s planned withdrawal — over four to six months — may leave open the possibility of a residual French presence if the junta changes its policies or loses power. The main question now is whether the shift in France’s strategy to regional containment can succeed. France’s new approach rests in part on increased cooperation with coastal West African states such as Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, and Benin to reinforce their capacities to resist a growing jihadist threat on their northern frontiers.
Regardless of the size and scope of France’s future military presence in these states, the success or failure of the French strategy depends entirely on those states investing considerable resources into their marginalized northern peripheries. It also requires clear efforts by local governments to end the stigmatization of Peuls or other Muslim communities and rein in potential security force abuses. Unfortunately, in regions where state authority is sometimes perceived as a threat, these may remain pious hopes.
Nathaniel Powell is an Africa Analyst at Oxford Analytica and an Honorary Researcher at Lancaster University’s Centre for War and Diplomacy. He is the author of France’s Wars in Chad: Military Intervention and Decolonization in Africa.