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Mali: ‘Void left by France will be difficult to fill’ – Boisvert

By Achraf Tijani
Posted on Wednesday, 16 June 2021 18:15

A French helicopter engaged in Barkhane in Ndakji, Mali, on 29 July 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

What will be the consequences of the withdrawal of French troops from Operation Barkhane on Mali’s security situation? What reasons led France’s President Emmanuel Macron to choose this new strategy in the Sahel? Marc-André Boisvert, a researcher at the Centre FrancoPaix, gives his perspectives.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced the end of Operation Barkhane, in its current form, on 10 June 2021. He made this announcement a few days after he had decided to suspend joint operations between French and Malian soldiers.

However, Macron provided assurances that his country would remain militarily engaged in Mali and the Sahel, but within the framework of an “international alliance between regional states.” The precise details regarding this new broader international mission will be finalised by the end of June.

The head of state seems to have wanted to justify his decision to a weary French public, who will be heading to the polls next year. He did this by citing the political situation in Mali, criticising Colonel Assimi Goïta’s second coup within less than a year and reiterating France’s fears that the Malian authorities may engage in dialogue with the jihadists.

What will be the consequences of this withdrawal on the ground? And more broadly in the Sahel, where the jihadist threat continues to grow, despite military operations?

Marc-André Boisvert, a researcher at the Centre FrancoPaix and author of Forces Armées Maliennes, une Lente Reconstruction (Malian Armed Forces, a slow reconstruction) in 2016, deciphers the implications for us.

Barkhane will soon no longer exist in its current form. Although we do not yet know the specifics regarding the French military intervention in the future, we have been informed that it will be at least a partial withdrawal. How do you think the Malian Armed Forces (Fama) will adapt?

Marc-André Boisvert: The operations carried out by Fama are stabilisation actions – securing villages, towns, roads – and specific offensive interventions. Operation Barkhane, particularly within the context of joint military operations, was a support mission. Now that Barkhane is over, Fama will, of course, continue this type of operation, but they have just lost a very powerful ally. The French are leaving and will take their air support with them.

For the time being, Malians do not seem to have come up with any new strategic operations. And I don’t think we should expect a major overhaul of their method.

How involved were Barkhane soldiers in joint military operations with Fama? Is intelligence sharing, an essential element, part of the now-suspended “military collaboration”?

It seems that in recent times there have been no large-scale joint military operations, but rather ad hoc missions. These took several forms, in addition to the classic military manoeuvres. They ranged from making contact with village communities to seizing terrorist means of transport. Above all, this collaboration created cohesion between Fama and the French soldiers, through exchanges that allowed each side to gain a better knowledge of the terrain. And contrary to what one might think, the information went both ways. The Malian soldiers not only shared a lot of important intelligence, but also explained how to interact with certain communities.

With this suspension, and pending the concrete implementation of the end of Barkhane, there is a risk that fewer operations will be planned in the future and that there will be more emergency interventions. Moreover, this decision makes the G5 Sahel’s work more difficult. Indeed, joint military operations are an integral part of the G5 Sahel missions. France has been slowly disengaging itself since the summit in Pau (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) back in January 2020, which was confirmed by its decision to end Barkhane in the near future.

Emmanuel Macron evoked several “red lines” when he announced this suspension: the coup against Bah N’Daw, then the opening of a dialogue with the jihadists. In your opinion, which one influenced him the most?

The negotiations with the jihadists are not, in my opinion, the real concern. France’s real fear is that the democratic transition will be stalled. Bah N’Daw is not the crux of the problem. Ever since the coup d’état within a coup d’état took place, France has been concerned about the political status quo.

Another obstacle, which is not highlighted enough, is the coup’s impact on the country’s system of governance. The regionalisation process, which was foreseen by the 2015 Accord, has slowed down. And this inertia has contributed to security instability. While the idea of withdrawing security cooperation is problematic, this crisis cannot be solved through this prism alone.

Other EU countries followed France’s lead and decided to suspend their military cooperation. Is the impact operational or symbolic?

The Takuba force (a coalition of European special forces) was only set up in July 2020. So for the moment, there has been no real impact on the ground. Barkhane, on the other hand, has a very large logistical force, which is used – in particular – to move troops and deliver equipment. Tabuka has no such asset.

The demands of the Malian theatre, the small number of personnel engaged by the European special forces and their very limited knowledge of the terrain all account for Tabuka’s lack of real effect on the security situation. This European coalition allows the French to prepare their exit. But since the 2020 coup, the fears of European countries have increased and so they are now more reluctant to send new contingents.

What are the chances that consultations with Western partners will go well?

Everything remains to be seen. The French presence was very important with Barkhane, especially in terms of logistics. France was the epicentre of the fight against terrorism in the country. This void will be difficult to fill.

There have been some proposals made that look good on paper, but who will replace France’s logistical and military power in practice? There will be a lot of work to do because Barkhane was at the centre of all operations. Whatever options are chosen, they will not happen overnight. Especially as there is a lack of interest from the international community regarding Mali’s security situation.

In Bamako, several demonstrations were organised to demand Russian intervention. However, Mali signed a military cooperation agreement with Moscow in 2019. Could a possible French withdrawal pave the way for a larger Russian presence? Will a new Bamako-Moscow military axis emerge?

The Russians have been present in the country since the Soviet period and many Malian soldiers trained in Russia. But on the ground, the country doesn’t seem to wield any real influence in Mali, apart from spreading disinformation on social media.

The crisis in Mali must be seen from a Malian-Malian perspective. There is no real struggle for influence between foreign powers, unlike what can be observed in the CAR. If the Malians were to turn to the Russians in the future, it would be more out of a desire to seek alternative solutions, rather than out of a real necessity.

Within the population, opinions vary according to the generations. The old feel a kind of nostalgia towards Russia, as some of them have visited the country and interacted with its people. And yet, they don’t have any anti-French sentiments. On the other hand, the younger people know nothing about Russia. They have never been there, but some see it as a credible alternative.

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