On 17 February 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the withdrawal of French military forces from Mali. Far from unexpected, the announcement came as a result of rapidly escalating tensions between Paris and Mali’s rulers. The breakdown started with the military-led coup d’état in August 2020, it was exacerbated by the putschists’ forcible removal of the President of the Malian Transition Bah Ndaw in May 2021 (what came to be known as the “coup within the coup”), and culminated in January 2022 with the expulsion of the French ambassador in Bamako as a retaliatory measure for the French Minister of Foreign Affairs declaring Mali’s rulers to be “out of control”.
Paris’ military footprint in Mali had been growing since January 2013, when Bamako first made an appeal to the former colonial ruler to oust the jihadist-led coalition who six months earlier had occupied the rebellious north of the country – a vast dryland twice the size of Italy. In almost a decade, the format and mandate of French military interventions in the area has evolved considerably: in 2013, Operation Serval managed to drive the jihadists out of the main towns of northern Mali. In 2014, the over 5,000-strong mission known as Barkhane was tasked with conducting counter-terrorist operations across the Sahel’s vast hinterlands and cutting off the jihadists supply lines from Libya. As terrorist cells morphed into a broader jihadist-inspired insurgency in the central Sahel, in 2015-16 France urged the creation of a Joint Force coordinating military operations and borderlands’ stabilisation among the G5 Sahel countries – Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – under French command. And in 2020, the growing threat from Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, in the three-border area straddling Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, prompted to the creation of the Takuba Task Force, led by French forces with contributions by other European countries, namely Italy, Sweden, Estonia, Denmark and the Czech Republic.
The withdrawal of French troops from Mali was reportedly discussed and agreed with France’s West African and European allies at the Elysée Palace on 16 February. Significantly, the official announcement one day later was made alongside the opening of the 6th EU-AU Summit in Brussels. This marked a striking divergence with the previous 5th AU-EU Summit, held in Abidjan in November 2017, when the then newly elected President Macron was largely credited for (efforts aimed at) promoting a reset of France-Africa relations and providing humanitarian assistance to African migrants stranded in Libya.
With hindsight, then, one may be tempted to see the withdrawal of French forces from Mali as a downsizing of Paris’ international standing, and yet another failure of Macron’s foreign policy ambitions. After all, the setback in the Sahel region comes amid a series of debacles suffered by France on the international stage in recent months, just as presidential elections approach: in September 2021, Australia unilaterally pulled out of a huge deal to buy French made weapons as a result of US pressure. The flagrant humiliation stirred unprecedented tensions among the theoretically allied P3 members of the UN Security Council, with France going as far as recalling its ambassador to the United States in protest. In November, the Paris International Conference on Libya was meant to ensure that democratic elections would take place before the end of the year as scheduled, yet the solemn pledges that all the parties made to Macron turned out to be completely untrustworthy when elections were simply and unceremoniously cancelled. Most recently, the attempts by the French President (and the current EU Council President) to avert military escalations in Ukraine proved merely dilatory, if not delusive.
And yet, a look at longer term trends suggests that the recent (or not so recent) diplomatic escalation between Paris and Bamako may have only precipitated a withdrawal from the Sahelian theatre, which the French authorities had in fact been planning for some time. Despite the major efforts made by Paris, a real strategic breakthrough has remained elusive, with jihadist formations gaining ground across much of the region, and Sahelian leaders taking advantage of the protection of French forces to delay the implementation of much needed reforms and even flirting with France’s strategic rivals – Turkey, Russia and China. In the meantime, the political and economic costs of French military operations in the Sahel had become hardly sustainable. The death of more than 50 French soldiers serving in Mali, as well as the civilian casualties reportedly killed by French strikes, have attracted growing attention from French media, becoming a source of concern for Macron. The incapacity of the much superior French forces to get to grips with (what initially appeared) a small-scale rebellion caused disillusion and suspicion among Sahelian public opinion, fuelling speculations about Paris’ real intentions and a growing anti-French sentiment. At the same time, the escalating costs of French military presence in the Sahel have absorbed the largest share of France’s defence budget: not only have these costs become hardly sustainable in the context of the COVID-19 economic downturn, but, more importantly, they are a drain on crucial resources that are increasingly needed in the face of changing strategic priorities, which are reorienting the overall French military doctrine from counter-insurgency to high-intensity warfare.
It may therefore be that disengagement from Mali is not such bad news for Paris. It is less clear to what extent this also holds true for Bamako. Malian authorities try to capitalise on the growing anti-French sentiments of some politicised segments of the population by using nationalist rhetoric, stressing their own agency in the process. But without the critical support of French forces and intelligence, the Malian army runs the risk of being overwhelmed by the armed jihadist groups which are strengthening their grip in the centre and north of the country. To offset the departure of the French, Malian rulers appear to bank on the support of the Russian private military contractor Wagner, which has been present in the country since late 2021 and is now reportedly deploying some 1,000 fighters in the central Mopti region. Yet this strategy entails political and economic costs which can hardly be sustainable in the long term, especially in light of the harsh economic sanctions that regional and international organisations have adopted against Mali’s military leadership. It is also unclear to what extent European partners who eagerly followed France’s leadership in the Sahel are now ready to drastically reconsider a regional strategic orientation that their respective public opinions had only reluctantly come to accept.
Overall, then, France’s disengagement from the Sahel hardly represents an unforgettable strategic achievement, yet whether Paris is the biggest loser remains to be seen.