Not again

Is Mali the French version of Afghanistan (with some caveats)?

By Kurt Davis Jr.

Posted on May 12, 2023 11:12

Many are wondering whether French President Emmanuel Macron’s entanglement in the Sahel is analogous to the troubles that foreign powers have faced in Afghanistan. The Wagner Group (and Russia) will likely determine the answer

The quick takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 by the Taliban regime following the final withdrawal of US troops was not what political insiders and casual observers could have predicted.

Taliban forces seized a string of cities within 10 days, largely without force, via strategic agreements with local heads of government. President Ashraf Ghani fled to Abu Dhabi in that same 10-day period, acknowledging the “Taliban have won” and leaving the world to ask what happened.

How did the US-backed government under Ghani fall so quickly?

We now know that the Taliban had brokered a series of deals with Afghan government officials in rural villages to hand over weapons when the Americans left and to step aside. These quasi-ceasefire deals quietly expanded to cover district and provincial leaders. Taliban fighters entered Kabul with no resistance as police checkpoints and government posts were left abandoned.

We can say the Taliban capitalized on the uncertainty created by the Doha agreement which outlined a timeline for the American withdrawal without any clarity on how the Ghani-led government and the Taliban would share power. Regardless of the backstory, the pace at which the American-backed and trained government collapsed and the Taliban captured power resembles folklore.

Mali is Afghanistan, again, for France

It is finding an African version in Mali, although those associated with the situation, in particular French President Emmanuel Macron, dismissed the similarities. However, comparisons between Afghanistan and Mali, which started in 2013 after the French sent troops to Mali, have grown as the French military presence increased, decreased, and eventually ended in 2022.

The critics may be proven right in that the French involvement in Mali is a French version of Afghanistan and will ultimately end in failure with similar mistakes.

A quick war or intervention is never quick, especially without an effective plan for creating a legitimate government. Afghanistan had long been the centre of competing powers with the British, Russians and Americans trapped in a war in the country at some point in time.

The first two British wars were a struggle to secure the country against Russian influence with the third war becoming a lost effort to keep the country out of the Ottoman Empire’s influence. The Soviet Union occupied the country between 1979 and 1988 with the CIA covertly arming the Afghanistan mujahideen during the Cold War.

The US faced some of those mujahideen fighters when it entered the country in 2001 following the attacks of 9/11. The US, like its counterparts, failed to create a legitimate government that is incorruptible among the Afghani population.

In general, the Ghani government could not escape accusations of corruption from both the Americans and the Afghanis. The US also consistently faced the presence of external influences, most notably Iran and Pakistan, when trying to establish peace in the country that many observers (and political analysts) often forget is a strategic regional connection between the Middle East/central Asia and South and East Asia.

Foreign interference in Mali

Mali is not very different. French Sudan, which included modern-day Mali, was formed in 1891. Mali achieved independence in 1960 with Tuareg ethnic rebel groups in the north seeking autonomous rule in 1962. Tuareg and Arab uprisings occurred another three times (1991, 2006, and 2012) since 1962.

The Malian central government, under a series of leaders – elected presidents and military chiefs – have long sought to divide the opposition in the north and exploit sectarian (and ethnic) tensions to mitigate the strength of any “northern front.”

Peace in the north has also been aggravated by foreign interference, especially during the years of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi who, alongside Algeria, pushed for an alliance with the Tuareg community in Mali and later attempted to help negotiate a resolution with the Malian central government.

Libya and Algeria would often differ on strategy and groups to support, which led to more conflict than resolution. Some critics will say the current conflict has some connection to Libya, but this is not the case except for weapons generally left behind from the Gaddafi years.

The history of the country likely informed the French strategy when the French arrived in 2013, although the decision to send troops had to be rushed as rebels looked poised to capture Bamako within days. The French recaptured cities such as Timbuktu and Gao within weeks and re-established a sense of control for the central government.

Yet, the French troops remained in the country for another nine years as they faced a hodgepodge of groups – the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MLNA), Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujwa), and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – who, while uncoordinated on ideology at times, continue to view the existing Malian government as illegitimate and want the leadership removed.

In the eyes of many Malians in Bamako and the north, the French were mainly a colonial power interfering on behalf of an unelected government back in 2013 and have generally overstayed their welcome albeit at the offering of each successive Malian government.

With the French gone, the rebels are again finding their way back to Bamako with the belief that the military junta will not hold elections and that Bamako has little concern for the north.

Wagner Group fills the gap

The security vacuum is usually never filled by an ally of the international order.

To avoid the Taliban outcome in Mali, the existing military junta governing the country have hired mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group. The Wagner Group has become a formidable line of defence for the junta but at the detriment of internal cohesion within the country.

Since arriving at the end of 2021, the private military group has been accused of significantly increasing violence against civilians (in addition to rebel groups). The conflict and tension in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger resulting from the presence of jihadist forces and Wagner mercenaries continue to spill over the border into Mali, further escalating the risk of violence and economic destruction to Malians.

The presence of the Wagner Group should help the military junta regain control of the country. However, even if peace is achieved, it is widely believed the military junta will postpone the referendum on a revised constitution until 2024 or later (it had been scheduled for March 2023 before the latest postponement).

The previous schedule assumed legislative elections in October or November 2023 and a presidential election in February 2024 following the March 2023 referendum. Without a date for the constitutional referendum, the subsequent elections are a pipedream with some political insiders and casual observers calling Mali a “lost cause.”

Let’s not forget that Colonel Assimi Goita, de facto leader of Mali, originally proposed elections for 2026 until succumbing to pressure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Goita may eventually get to 2026 when it is fair to assume (with the help of the Wagner Group) that he (and those backing him) will have solidified power and control to a level that ensures their victory.

Who does not expect some mix of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the military junta in Mali to be governing in 2026 or beyond?

Loss of rights for women and children

The survival of regimes outside any regional or global system is usually to the detriment of its citizens.

Since the return of the Taliban, women have lost access to education, employment, and freedom of movement (with most activities dependent on male guardian approval or accompaniment). Women have been banned from working for NGOs in the country, which has led to many NGOs suspending much of their work in the country as reaching the most at-risk (women and children) became impossible.

Twenty years under American-backed Afghani governments provided women with rights and freedoms not seen in the prior and current Taliban regimes. Celebrating those 20 years feels insincere when it is not sustained for, at least, one generation.

Today, an economic crisis is underwriting food insecurity and puts women and children at great risk. The previous 20 years, at best, feels like a small symbolic victory for women and children.

On the one hand, if the military junta falls to any extreme jihadist group, then women and children will likely be at risk of losing their freedom under the new regime.

On the other hand, if Mali becomes entrenched with, and dependent on, the Wagner mercenaries (largely viewed as being aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin) to manage the country and, in doing so, sidesteps having an election in the near term, Mali will be placed outside regional and global alliances.

ECOWAS will have to take action, including border restrictions, trade restrictions, and potential stripping of other rights within the ECOWAS community. NGOs will likely have to reduce their presence if the country becomes either more dangerous or funding for NGO activities is reduced by governments.

The Malian civilian population will be the biggest loser in such a scenario.

The deteriorating situation in Burkina Faso alongside the situation in Mali puts instability on the doorsteps of countries like Niger, Ghana, and Cote d’Ivoire, among others. It creates economic, food, and refugee crises that neighbouring countries do not have the resources to handle.

Most West African governments will want to avoid the toppling of governments by rebels or jihadists and prevent breakaway territories or states, because the success of either scenario in Mali would only further encourage more attempts by rebels across the region.

A political cynic would say this concern for some leaders may be more motivating than the life-and-death crises that affect citizens, and that cynic may be right.

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