What do Divergent Security Interests between the Malian and French Governments mean for the Future of French Operations in the Sahel

What do Divergent Security Interests between the Malian and French Governments mean for the Future of French Operations in the Sahel

Growing divides in security approaches between the Malian and French governments are making security objectives harder to achieve in the Sahel. Recent developments are likely to complicate the issues further, as the new prime minister Moctar Ouane calls for more negotiations with armed groups in the north. 

 Division grows between French and Malian forces

In January 2013, the interim Malian government in Bamako contacted Paris requesting air and intelligence support, to combat a rebellion conducted by the Mouvement National de la Libération Azawad (MNLA) in the north that had been hijacked by Islamist militants. Paris returned the letter, pushing for more explicit emphasis on an airborne intervention. Thus, Operation Sérval began. At its height, 4000 French troops set foot in Mali supported by 2000 Chadians.

France was reluctant to work closely with the Malian army for three reasons: the revenge attacks on Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) fighters after the liberation of Gao, its incompetence fighting the MNLA and finally, the widespread corruption that existed within the Malian military. The liberation of Kidal fomented resentment between the two factions further when French forces entrusted the city to secular-nationalist MNLA forces, rather than Malian troops, as they advanced into the surrounding hills.

By mid-2014, allegations that the French government were paying ransoms to al Qaeda for the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) for the return of hostages had widened the rift between Paris and Bamako, coupled with the suspicion that France would hand over the northern towns to the native Tuareg population.

Operation Sérval was consequently adapted into a region-wide force under the name Operation Barkhane to address these issues. By expanding beyond Mali’s borders, French forces aimed to circumvent cooperation with the Malian army to prevent further frustration and distrust from derailing their efforts. Furthermore, by 2014 the security threat had moved beyond Mali and thus required a more versatile force to tackle it.

Nevertheless, the strategy appears not to have worked. The death of Bah Ag Moussa last November highlighted the continued division between the two camps. On the one hand, the killing by French airstrikes of one of the leaders of the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), a collection of the terrorist groups operating in the area, signalled the continuation of France’s highly militarised strategy to pick off key targets.

On the other, Bamako has come to favour a different approach that instead supports increased dialogue with jihadis. In October last year the state negotiated a deal to release around 200 prisoners, many of whom suspected or convicted jihadis, in order to secure four hostages that included the former prime minister Somaila Cissé and the French aid worker Sophie Pétronin. The move sparked criticism from the French foreign ministry and among academics. In an interview with France 24, Caroline Roussy, a research fellow at the French Institute for International Strategic Affairs (IRIS) described the deal as a ‘slap in the face for France’, stating it had created unease within the Barkhane forces. France’s position remains not to engage with active terror groups.

 France’s differing security interests

Diverging approaches between Paris and Bamako can be rooted in the understanding of their security objectives. For Bamako, the issues that arose over the liberation of Kidal highlighted a desire to reassert its control over the northern region by defeating and neutralising both the MNLA and Islamist militias. Paris’s priority in Mali was to stop the kidnapping of its nationals. This was highlighted by the key role the protection of French nationals played in the justification of the intervention. Nevertheless, the means for the French to achieve this has always been the eradication of terrorism in northern Mali.

For Paris, a highly militarised strategy has worked: it managed to liberate the northern stretches of Mali as early as April 2014 and free the four French hostages that had been detained in the jihadi stronghold in the desert town of Aguelholk since 2010.

Furthermore, the number of kidnappings of French nationals have significantly reduced since the beginning of the conflict. The last was the abduction of two French tourists in Benin in 2019. They were swiftly recovered by French military forces nine days after they went missing, albeit costing the lives of two French soldiers. The French Defence Minister, Florence Parly insists the operation was necessary to stop the kidnappers crossing into Malian territory where they would be harder to detain. With the release of Sophie Pétronin, no French hostages remain in Mali, Burkina Faso or Niger.

On the other hand, negotiations have provided considerable reinforcement for the GSIM. Among the 200 released by the Malian government in November last year, 29 were terrorists captured during Operation Barkhane. There is also suspicion that a ransom in the region of €15 million was paid to the group, consequently increasing its financial strength. This has served to harden France’s line against negotiations with terrorists.

For Bamako, however, France’s highly militarised strategy has not worked. Large swathes of territory in the north remain lawless despite the 2015 peace deal designed to end the conflict. Pushes to re-establish control of these regions have allowed too much interference and abuses by military personnel to incriminate the government. This, coupled with the power vacuum left by a recent coup, has allowed terrorists to strengthen their foothold in the area. Consequently, efforts to recapture the north have not produced the desired results. The Malian government instead now seeks to use peaceful resolution to expand their influence.

To this end, offers by Islamist groups have provided a solution to the stalemate. In March last year the GSIM published a communiqué accepting the Malian governments offer to negotiate peace. The only precondition stated was the ‘ending [of] the racist, arrogant, French Crusade Operation.’

 France’s resolve to remain in the Sahel weakens

If the disparity between Mali and France continues, there is a chance that the Malian government will attempt to move away from its ally in their quest for security. Already, there have been signs of Russian involvement in a coup this summer. Furthermore, the option for peace without France has been presented to them by the GSIM’s communiqué.

Nevertheless, the chances of France removing itself entirely are slim. Although last year French President Emmanuel Macron threatened to pull out of the area, stating he didn’t want troops on the ground where ‘there is ambiguity to anti-French movements’, in January he has since promised to increase the French military presence in the Sahel. The abundance of French interests in the region makes the extraction of French troops highly improbable. It does, however, suggest a weakening of France’s resolve to remain embedded in the conflict. This has been compounded by the increasing number of casualties that French forces are taking, including the death of five soldiers at the beginning of the year killed by improvised explosive devices. It is more likely that France will continue to call for a more multilateral response to terrorism in the Sahel and in so doing replace its troops with those from partner nations.

Unless France and other foreign donors can move away from the highly militarised strategy it employs at the moment, Malian goals are unlikely to be met. Without change, France too is unlikely to succeed in eradicating groups such as the GSIM and AQIM, which might cause further structural and systemic damage in Mali in the future.

Author: Patrick McAllister

Categories: Africa, Security

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