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In September 2008, when I was secretary of state for foreign affairs and human rights, I made a second visit to our French soldiers in Kabul. This time, at Camp Warehouse, I paid my respects in front of a monument erected in memory of those who had fallen on Afghan soil; 10 of them had been killed in an ambush the previous August.
Despite this assumed military presence, the France I represented was nevertheless proud of its singular approach, which contrasted sharply with the US’s purely military one. This is what I said at the time: “The Afghans still remember how long our cooperation has been going on. We have two French high schools there, created in the 1920s, which have an excellent reputation; as does the French hospital in Kabul. Our archaeological cooperation in search of Afghan heritage, which the Taliban had ransacked, as well as the destroyed Bamyian Buddah, is exemplary; and our army has established close ties with the population.”
Through this statement, I was trying to highlight the specifics of French diplomacy. Unlike the Americans, we, the French, knew that we would only be able to achieve our objectives by getting as close as possible to the people and thinking about long-term development. When I was surrounded by little Afghan girls at the French Lycée Malalai, my heart swelled with pride as I could see in their eyes that they were picturing a future with a free and sovereign Afghanistan, first and foremost for women!
In this respect, given the disastrous consequences of the US troops’ precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, one would have thought that the Europeans – and in particular the French, having learned from their unique approach in Afghanistan – would have applied a different strategy in the combat zones where they are involved, such as the Sahel. However, it should come as no surprise that there are certain similarities between the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of Operation Barkhane in the Sahel.
The French withdrawal – which will involve ensuring that military bases in Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu in northern Mali are closed by 2022 – is taking place at a time when civilians are criticising France more than ever before. France is now facing the same condemnation in the Sahel as the US did in Afghanistan. How did it come to this when we, [the] French, knew better than anyone the importance of taking care of the civilian population’s social concerns (youth employment, inclusion of women, governance, fighting corruption, etc.) during military intervention?
The Afghan tragedy must act as a serious warning for the management of the Sahel situation. It has a singular echo in Africa, where some fear that France’s precipitous withdrawal could lead to the same catastrophic scenario. Others, on the contrary, think that France should leave to avoid getting bogged down.
Of course, the situations in two territories that are 8,000km apart are not entirely comparable. France is not withdrawing altogether; rather, its presence will undergo a ‘profound transformation’, meaning that between 2,500 and 3,000 French soldiers are expected to take charge of the internationalised fight against terrorism. It undoubtedly has deeper knowledge of a region over which it had exercised a long colonial tutelage. The Sahelian jihadists, on the other hand, are spread over at least five countries and have no governmental experience, unlike the Taliban who ran the Afghan state between 1996 and 2001.
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Nevertheless, both areas face similar challenges, as they are territories under Western military interventionism and Islamist insurgency pressure (Al-Qaeda is a key player in both regions). In 2012, Mali was occupied by jihadists and nearly toppled after the promised fall of Bamako.
Moreover, the jihadists located in the Sahel reacted quickly, as they were galvanised by the Taliban’s lightning victory. The leader of Al-Qaeda’s Sahel branch – the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) – which had pledged allegiance to the Taliban at the time of its creation in 2017, paid tribute to the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, on the occasion of the invading American forces and their allies’ withdrawal’, after ‘two decades of patience’.
All this proves that foreign presence cannot last forever. Although the US’ 20-year presence seemed unusually long, questions have been raised about why the French have been participating in the Serval and Barkhane operations since 2013.
According to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), 2020 was the deadliest year since the war in the Sahel began. States that spend 30% of their budgets on security are unable to address the roots of the terrorist contagion, youth unemployment, poverty, lack of public services in vast desert territories and poor governance.
Neither Minusma’s 15,000 troops nor the European security training programmes (EUTM and EUCAP) have been able to change this. The international community itself has never fulfilled its financial commitments to ensuring economic and social development. As a result, according to a statement made in January 2020 by the UN Special Envoy, with “more than 4,000 deaths”, “the number of victims of terrorist attacks increased fivefold in three years in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger” between 2016 and 2019.
There is still time to learn valuable lessons from the Sahel and from what went wrong in Afghanistan. Clearly, it is a call to African states to stop relying solely on foreign troops and build strong national armies; to take better care of their population (thus preventing them from becoming poor and desperate, which leads them to join the ranks of jihadist fighters) and to fight against corruption that has dealt a fatal blow to the Afghan government, which has lost credibility in the eyes of the population. The most striking illustration of this was President Ghani’s cowardly and distraught flight when the Taliban troops entered Kabul.
France, for its part, sensed the US impasse in Afghanistan and thus withdrew its troops at the end of 2012 after losing 89 of its own and spending nearly €500m that year. However, it must now apply its own principles in the Sahel; the very ones I defended in Kabul on its behalf, if it does not want to suffer the same fate as that of the US in Afghanistan.
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