It started with fanfare and friendship: Upon arrival in the West African nation of Mali in 2013, French troops were greeted as heroes liberating Malians from an existential jihadist threat.
But it ended quietly on Monday afternoon, as the last few French units rolled over the border into neighboring Niger, without a heartfelt goodbye to their Malian partners, with whom France has had a major quarrel, and their mission is far from accomplished.
The last unit of the French military mission, Operation Barkhane, crossed the border at 1 p.m., the army said a statementadding that the mission was undergoing a “deep transformation” but would “continue to fight terrorism” in the region.
French troops have been fighting Islamists in Mali for nearly a decade. Billions of euros have been spent. Thousands of civilians were killed, as well as thousands of Malian soldiers and 59 French. But far from being stopped, the uprising has spread from its northern beginnings across the center of the country and to its neighbors.
“The situation is worse than in 2013,” said Alpha Alhadi Koina, a Bamako-based geopolitical analyst at the Think Peace Sahel research institute. “The cancer has spread through Mali.”
Despite France’s regular announcements of jihadist leaders it has killed, Islamist armed groups continue to attract young men and often find fertile ground for recruitment among marginalized communities with grievances against the state.
In the wider Sahel region, the vast swath of sub-Saharan Africa, more than 2.5 million people have been displaced in the past decade, according to the United Nations. High Commissioner for Refugees. More than 2,000 civilians have been killed in the first six months of this year alone, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit organization.
In 2020, Malians’ anger bubbled over their own government for failing to stop the violence, and the country experienced some of the largest demonstrations in years. At the height of the protests, Malian soldiers staged a coup, arrested the president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and forced him to resign.
Since taking power, the military junta has enjoyed a surge in popularity and the French, who are seen as complicit in Keita’s government, have fallen further into disgrace.
France has made some significant mistakes, said General Didier Castres, a former deputy chief of staff for operations in the early years of Operation Barkhane and its predecessor, Operation Serval. Among them, he said, was a condescending approach that ultimately annoyed the Malian authorities and the country’s people.
“We behaved like a big brother who would turn to his little brother and tell him what to do and what not to do,” said General Castres, who is now retired. “We were the know-it-alls trying to apply templates that weren’t right for them.”
Another mistake, he said, was to resolve a multi-faceted crisis primarily through military means.
But Mali still appears to be pursuing this strategy by hiring Russian mercenaries from a shadowy group known as the Wagner Group, which is backed by the Kremlin, according to officials and diplomats. In March, Malian soldiers and their Russian allies executed hundreds of men in Moura, central Mali, according to a recent DailyExpertNews investigation.
The increasingly complex crisis in Mali, with its blurred lines between who is considered a rebel, a jihadist or just an ordinary villager, “is not a war Wagner can win,” said Konimba Sidibé, a former minister in Mr. Keita. .
In the early days of the French intervention, it was largely seen as a great success. “Mali is not a caliphate, and the chances that it could have become one in 2013 were quite high,” General Castres said. He argued that France and European allies had also helped Mali strengthen its military capabilities.
French troops had much better equipment and training than their Malian counterparts, and were able to carry out difficult operations from both the air and the ground, where elite units in air-conditioned armored vehicles scoured the bushy savanna in search of insurgents and their weapons.
But the French soldiers often had little or no experience in any African country, a limited understanding of the complex dynamics at play and no way of communicating with the Malians they were supposed to protect. They spent much of their time in heavily protected bases and were seen by many as arrogant and ineffective.
France will now conduct its counter-terrorism efforts in the region from neighboring Niger, as well as from Chad, which is home to the headquarters of the Barkhane operation.
The withdrawal of the French from Mali also adds uncertainty to the future of the United Nations peacekeeping operation in the country. Last week, Germany, the largest contributor to the mission, announced it was ending its participation just three months after voting for its extension.
The French announced their departure in February, and as they have closed their bases and wound down operations, the attacks have continued to increase.
On August 7, Islamist insurgents killed 42 Malian soldiers in an attack 70 miles south of the French base in the ancient city of Gao. Just over the border with Burkina Faso, 15 Burkinabe soldiers were killed days later. A former minister, who asked not to be named fearing reprisals, said jihadist dormitories in the capital Bamako are waiting for the right opportunity to strike. Such an opportunity could be presented by the departure of the French, he said.
Part of France’s unpopularity in Mali – as well as in several other African countries – stems from its past as a colonial power and from the post-independence presidents’ meddling in African politics, a system known as Françafrique, largely motivated by French economic interests.
Although French officials speak of Françafrique as a thing of the past, the system in Mali is often seen as alive and kicking, and resisting it has become a political rallying cry. So when Mali expelled the French ambassador last year, many Malians welcomed the move. He has not been replaced.