Eight years have passed since the French military launched its operations in Mali at the request of Mali’s then interim government.
Mali, at the time, was experiencing a political and humanitarian crisis that brought to the fore prolonged grievances of parts of the northern populations.
The mission’s immediate goal was to stop separatist and criminal groups from advancing on Mali’s capital, Bamako, and safeguard the country’s sovereignty while buying time for an international peacekeeping force to become operational.
Operation Serval soon morphed into a regional counter-terrorism operation, going by the name Barkhane.
After years of prolonged conflict, in June 2021, a second coup within a year led to the stepping down of President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. Colonel Assimi Goita, who had led the coup in August 2020, was declared interim president.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron then announced the winding down of Operation Barkhane. Even prior to the coup, anti-French sentiment in Mali had been rising and public opinion in France had turned against the military operation.
Fast forward to early 2022, a week before the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. France and its African and European allies confirmed that they would withdraw the 2,400 French troops and a smaller European force from Malian territory.
They said they would “continue their joint action against terrorism in the Sahel region”.
The withdrawal is expected to take four to six months to complete. The core of the French operation in West Africa will then have shifted from Mali to Niger.
The full impact of the French withdrawal is difficult to estimate at this point. It will depend on whether regional and international actors can fill the security vacuum.
Uncertainties aside, the withdrawal of France will have some reasonably predictable effects. These include the emergence of a new security vacuum, a further alienation between the junta and European partners, and new challenges to development and humanitarian aid efforts.
A new security vacuum
The French withdrawal means a loss of military capacities – in particular combat helicopters and field hospitals.
UN and African peacekeepers and European partners relied on them to protect their troops in Mali. To maintain the peace operations, other allies would need to compensate for those capacities.
The French Operation Barkhane and the multi-national Takouba Task Force are most directly engaged in fighting jihadist terrorist organisations in Mali.
The mandate of the UN mission, Minusma, is limited to implementing the 2015 Algiers peace accords on the conflict between the Malian government and rebel groups in northern Mali, and to protecting civilians.
Pundits point in particular to France’s air power, one of the most effective checks to counter jihadist groups.
The military junta and parts of the population look to Russian mercenaries to safeguard the government’s security. Whether the mercenary group Wagner can “compensate” for the French withdrawal and strengthen the national government’s counter-terrorism efforts is questionable as it has a record of exploiting political instability for its own economic interests.
There are also political and diplomatic implications of such cooperation due to the international condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
European mandates put into question
Even before France announced its withdrawal, Europe’s strategic approach to the Sahel showed signs of failure. The Malian military has resisted meaningful reforms of the security sector. The international cooperation failed to strengthen civilian oversight, and could not prevent the coups in 2020 and 2021.
The Malian military junta is delaying elections until 2025 and Russian mercenaries have arrived in Mali. These developments have made European governments doubt whether and how to continue their engagement in the Sahel.
Sweden has announced its immediate withdrawal from the Takouba Task Force and from Minusma by 2023. The new German defence minister, Christine Lambrecht, stated that it would be hard to imagine German armed forces remaining in a country whose government gave the impression that they were not welcome.
Development without security?
The Russian invasion in Ukraine may complicate the situation. European countries are likely to re-orient their attention and resources to NATO’s commitments.
It may become logistically and politically difficult to keep a military presence in Mali. But a full military withdrawal from Mali –- including European troop contributions to Minusma –- would be premature.
It could also have implications for the development and humanitarian aid engagement of European countries. A deteriorating security situation may make stabilisation efforts impossible.
Tough decisions ahead
The change in the Sahelian security landscape caused by the French withdrawal also presents an opportunity to think about different kinds of international engagement in Mali. What’s needed is a political strategy that is well coordinated with regional actors such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union.
In particular, European actors should not repeat the mistake of sidelining ECOWAS as they did after 2013. Promoting the G5 Sahel as the main regional security actor has proved insufficient as the organisation still struggles to find its place in the region and heavily depends on French assistance.
Instead of the previous heavily militarised approach, a more people-centred approach is warranted. This would put human security first, promote civil society and strengthen decentralised governance institutions.
The Malian military junta may interpret the French withdrawal as an initial success. It may be welcomed by Malians who have been frustrated by the lack of improved security over the years.
The security and development challenges in the country remain, however. The military junta has to decide whether it wants to opt for international isolation or to work for peace, development and better living conditions for all Malians.
If it chooses the second option, it will need the support of regional and international partners.