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Military Coup in Mali – The Future of the Barkhane Force is Shrouded in Mist

France’s strategy in the Sahel is directed at the region’s countries – partnerships in the fight against all elements of radical Islam that threatens the region. In this context, France strives to ensure the continuation of an active military partnership coupled with ensuring the ability of the countries involved to acquire the capability, knowledge, and means to safeguard their security independently, without the physical presence of French fighters. The strategy is based on a holistic approach (political, security and economic and infrastructural development). The military component, supported by Operation Barkhane, is led and commanded by France. Currently, around 5,100 Barkhane force soldiers are unsure whether they should stay in Mali and continue their diverse work.

On May 28, 2021, Mali suffered from a new coup d’état which made it the second military coup d’état within nine months (most recently in September 2020). The military coup undermines the foundations on which the partnership with France is built. Confirmation of the damage caused by the military coup was given in an interview by French President Emmanuel Macron to the Journal du Dimanche. Macron said, “French forces will leave the country if the regime in Bamako (the state capital) goes ‘towards’ radical Islam”.[1]

French military support for Mali began in 2012, since the country ‘suffered’ from political instability. In fact, in April 2012, Islamist rebels from the Tuareg tribe declared Azawad, a region in northern Mali, an independent state. The Mali government refused to recognize the rebels and their demands for recognition.

The Tuareg rebels began taking control of a deserted area, far from the reach and control of central government. Under the leadership of Colonel Mohamed Ag Najem, a former Libyan army officer, they conquered the cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. The northern part of Mali was overtaken by the ‘Ansar a-Dine’ organization – “Defenders of Faith”, headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, known as “the Strategist”.

At the request of the Mali government, France sent troops and intervened in the fighting as part of Operation SERVAL.[2]

Radical Islamic organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS took advantage of the governmental vacuum in many areas that spread throughout the country. Gradually, it became clear that the purpose of ‘Anser a-Din’ was contrary to that of MNLA (Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad); The latter aspire to establish their own independent state, while the Islamists wanted, like elsewhere, to be part of the global Muslim caliphate to be established and Sharia law implemented.

From that moment on, Mali sank into endless civil wars. It should be noted, Mali is one of the poorest countries on earth, a country where corruption is celebrated, the central government is unable to control the country and therefore many areas become a ‘petri dish’ for radical Islamic organizations.

France and the United States, like the European Union, condemned the ‘unacceptable coup’ in which President Ba Ndaw, Prime Minister Muktar Ouane and the Defense Minister Suleiman Dukur, were detained and placed under custody by officers at Kati military base (about 15 km outside the capital, Bamako).

The military coup was carried out by the country’s powerful man, Colonel Assimi Goïta, who also serves as vice-president, and claimed, after the coup, that Ndaw was trying to ‘sabotage’ the transition to democracy, including an attempt to nullify a commitment to hold the 2022 elections, that he (Goïta) pledged would take place as planned.[3]


‘We are not meant to stay forever’

In the interview, the French president said he had explained to Mali’s president Ndaw, who was very strict about the military ‘sealing off’ Islamic jihadists’ penetration, that he would never agree to a French military presence in a country where radical Islam dominates the dome. In Mali, the transitional government headed by Ndaw, was willing to open an internal dialogue with all the armed groups in the country, in contrast to the French position which sees such dialogue as contrarian to the will of the people of Mali.

According to French policy, there is nothing to negotiate on because jihadist leaders do not seek forgiveness or reintegration into civil society, but rather want to impose a totalitarian regime and create an Islamic state.

If Mali slides down the slope towards radical Islam and there is no legitimacy for democracy, then the French military presence and assistance is unnecessary.

The French president also informed the other partners in the region – France will disengage and its forces will return to France. 

If so, the Barkhane operation will come to an end. We will witness a rapid conquest of the entire Sahel by radical Islamic organizations and the domination of Sharia law in the region.

In any case, the French president explained in the interview that France was not meant to stay in the Sahel forever. For him, together with the United States and other Western countries, a ‘Marshall Plan’ needs to put into action for Africa in general, and the Sahel region, specifically. As time goes on, the Sahel, in which the French army has been present for eight years, has become the ‘Afghanistan of France’.[4] The French president seeks, and rightly so, to put an end to this. The French president is aware that a failure in joint activities, military and other, in the Sahel will be reflected on Europe in general and in France in the form of immigration. Without a joint action in the Sahel region, it will become a region of chaos. Amid this chaos, illegal immigration will develop and will not be controllable; a huge immigration wave will undermine the stability of some European countries.

If more European countries will join the war against the propagation of radical Islam and contribute funds to the rehabilitation effort of the Sahel region, the division of labor and resource allocation will surely make it easier for France and have more countries that are also threatened by the waves of immigration but aren’t yet aware of that share the burden.

In summary, French withdrawal from Mali or Operation Barkhane will have enormous strategic consequences. These consequences include: 1) the disintegration of the Sahel states and the creation of a new territorial caliphate; 2) withdrawal under pressure would equate to a major strategic defeat (Dien Bien Phu 2) that would undermine both the credibility of France’s foreign policy and the morale of its armies; 3) it will weaken the Liptako – Gourma Authority (LGA) which has set the goal of developing the areas adjacent to Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger; 4) France must redefine its goals in the Sahel, in view of the political crises within the partner countries (Mali, Chad) whose financial expenditures in supporting them have cost the French taxpayers more than a billion euros.

At this point, it remains only to wait and see how things will develop and in which direction.

[1] François Clemenceau, “Immigration, terrorism, colonization … Macron’s confidences in Africa,” Journal du Dimanche (29.5.2021)

[2] Operation Serval was an international military operation led by France and Mali in northern Mali. The operation began on January 11, 2013 and ended on July 15, 2014 with a French announcement that the operation ended. The aim of the operation was to liberate the northern part of the country from Islamist rebels who had taken over it, declaring disengagement from the central government and the establishment of an independent Muslim entity called Azawad.

[3] Colonel Goïta is the leader of the National Committee for the Salvation, a military junta that seized power from former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in September 2020 Mali state coup.

[4] In Afghanistan NATO operates under Article 5 (collective defense) for the only time in its history following the attacks of September 11, 2001. France (President Jacques Chirac) intervened by sending special guides and forces to hunt Bin Laden. President Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in 2007, decided to return to the combined command of NATO and sent conventional forces to fight the rebels, without providing them with sufficient means. This led to an ambush in the Uzbin Valley in August 2008 (50 km east of Kabul) in which the French forces suffered 10 deaths and 21 wounded. The encounter with the Taliban created public and political uproar and discourse in France.

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