The French retreat from Mali signals defeat in the West’s war on Islamic militancy — Analysis
It’s now clear that Western forces have failed to defeat terrorism in the strategic Sahel region
Ten-month-old rebel group of jihadist jihadists affiliated with Al-Qaeda was threatening to seize all Mali. France, together with 1,900 soldiers from Chad or Niger, sent some 3,500 troops to aid the Malian government. Some three weeks later, French President Francois Hollande was feted as a conquering hero by crowds of cheering Malian citizens during a visit to the northern Malian city of Timbuktu, which French forces had just recaptured from rebel forces.
Ten years later, Islamic terrorist organizations have overrun Sahel. They are not defeated and they continue to spread from Mali, Burkina Faso through Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire (Benin), and Togo. France was once seen as liberators. However, a Malian government has asked France to withdraw its troops from Mali. French President Emmanuel Macron declared on February 17, 2022 that France would end Operation Barkhane. The multi-national force, led by French soldiers, had been fighting Islamist militants in Mali and other parts of the Sahel region for a little less than nine years.
After the French-led French military campaign failed to end the Islamists’ gripes, the Mali government was tired of it. It also led to the death of thousands of Malian civilians. Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of the major Islamist group fighting in Mali, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), has agreed to enter peace talks with the Mali government, but only on the condition that Operation Barkhane be terminated and the French-led forces sent back to their respective countries.
French and its allies have failed to translate military victories into real social reforms, which is one reason Islamic jihadism flourished in Sahel. Islamic Jihadism’s lifeblood is political instability. The Sahel has been a symbol of this kind of chaos. The five leaders in the region of Chad (Burkina Faso), Niger and Mauritania originally backed French intervention but are now victims of political instability domestically.
The United Nations sent the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission to Mali (MINUSMA), following the French initial military intervention. It sought security and stability to help support a national political dialog that leads to the reestablishment, reconstruction and protection of the human rights and State authority. Instead, it saw an interminable conflict which claimed the lives of over 200 UN peacekeepers as well as 6,000 Malian civilians. This was just 2021. This failure empowered the May 25, 2021, coup which put a military junta led by Colonel Assimi Goita in power; it was Goita who subsequently ordered the French to leave.
France insists that it is not leaving Sahel but simply moving to neighboring countries. However, there has been a loss of the unity that existed in relation to the 2013 counterterrorism mission. Task Force Takuba (a 200-man NATO commando force) is being withdrawn by the European Union. Germany, on the other hand, is threatened to pull out its 1,700-strong training mission. Moreover, Mali’s decision to invite the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group to take over from the French has turned what was a unified counterterrorism mission into an extension of the US/NATO-Russian geopolitical competition. US military forces are also present in the Sahel region and have been observing the Russian presence. “Wagner is in Mali,” General Stephen Townsend, the head of the US Africa Command, told reporters in January of this year. “They are there, we think, numbering several hundred now,”Add that “the world can see this happening. It’s a great concern to us.” Russian officials, including President Putin, have meanwhile been distancing themselves from the Wagner Group, saying it’s a private company doing its own business without the Kremlin’s involvement.
Of perhaps even greater concern to the US and France is the success Mali has enjoyed on the battlefield fighting Islamic insurgents as part of the Malian Army’s “Operation Keletigui,”It has had significant success in the retaking of territory in central Mali that was previously held by JNIM rebels. France was embarrassed when the Malian military advance, in collaboration with Russian paramilitary, proved to be a major success. France hadn’t been able to attain anything remotely similar to such battlefield success since Operation Barkhane began in 2013 and it continued for several months.
France has taken the initiative to accuse the Goita government, which the Malian government strongly denies, of war crimes. These charges were echoed by the Office of the Haut Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations (March 8). The Malian government has since cut ties with France and banned the broadcasting of French news stations that had previously reported the UN claims.
Mali-Wagner is the most prominent example of the West’s near complete divorce. General Townsend said that he was shocked to learn of Wagner’s deployment to Mali. “I traveled to Mali and I met with … the junta president there,”It was explained. “a bad idea to invite Wagner in because we’ve seen them in Syria and other places in Africa.”Townsend says he said that to Colonel Goita “[Wagner] won’t partner more effectively [than the French]. I think they will only bring in bad.”
The current battle performance of the Wagner-assisted Malian Army shows that General Townsend’s warnings are unfounded. Russia might hold the key to defeating Islamist extremism, in the Sahel. This can only be viewed as a strategic victory for France and America in Africa.
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