A new Afghanistan? Mali conflict draws in big players

By Matthew Egger

France announced in July that it would halve the number of troops deployed in Mali by early 2022. The French military arrived in 2013 to combat extremism as part of Operations Serval and Barkhane, in coordination with NATO members and African states within the greater Sahel region. The threats stem primarily from offshoots of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and al-Qaeda.

Mali’s political environment has been tumultuous in recent years, with coups occurring in August 2020 and in May this year, undermining Mali’s counterterrorism (CT) efforts. Malians are divided over the French withdrawal, with some fearing greater insecurity as troops leave and others believing that it is time their former colonizers leave. Also worrying for France and Western governments is the prospect of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, deploying to Mali to fight extremism. The group is known for its heavy-handed CT tactics and it has committed atrocities throughout Africa.

Mali’s unstable political environment has threatened the country and its partners’ CT efforts. A 2012 coup particularly exacerbated insecurity, as extremists used a power vacuum to seize control of northern cities and implement a strict interpretation of Sharia law there. France launched Operations Serval and Barkhane to dislodge the extremists from these cities. In response, many extremists fled to the desert to regroup and began staging attacks from there. The two more recent coups have similarly jeopardized France and Mali’s shared goal of fighting extremism.

Many Malians have tired of France’s presence in their country

While France’s mission in the Sahel succeeded in killing senior leaders of both the ISGS and offshoots of al-Qaeda, extremism has nonetheless been on the rise since 2013. Since the start of Operation Barkhane, extremist groups have continued to launch attacks against civilian and military targets. In October 2017, for instance, the ISGS attacked a convoy of Nigerian and American soldiers in Niger, killing four from both militaries. Another ISGS attack on a military base in Niger killed 71 Nigerian soldiers in December 2019. A study by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project revealed that, between May 2019 and May 2020, the ISGS orchestrated 18 attacks, killing over 400 soldiers in the Sahel. The group also frequently targets civilians; an analysis by the Royal African Society found that the ISGS killed 4,723 civilians between 2012 and 2019.

In this context, France has drawn criticism for decreasing its footprint in Mali. However, President Macron has insisted that France is not abandoning its partners in Mali and will continue to fight extremism in the Sahel. France will redirect its resources and focus towards spearheading an international CT coalition called Task Force Takuba, which began in 2020 and operates from several bases in Mali and one in Chad.

The US Department of Defense urged Mali against signing the deal with Wagner

As France reduces its footprint in Mali, the Russian Wagner Group is poised to sign a $10 million-a-month deal with the Malian junta that will deploy 1,000 mercenaries to Mali on a CT mission. Wagner is notorious for committing atrocities in the areas it operates, which include Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and numerous other African countries. A UN report found that the group killed civilians, looted, recruited child soldiers, and sexually assaulted women while operating in the Central African Republic, and many fear Wagner will commit similar crimes in Mali. The US Department of Defense urged Mali against signing the deal with Wagner, arguing that the deployment of the group will exacerbate insecurity. Both the EU and the US have levied sanctions against Wagner in response to its heavy-handed tactics.

However, many Malians have tired of France’s presence in their country and believe that it is time for their former coloniser to leave. These Malians believe that the Wagner Group will produce better results than France and its Western partners’ CT mission. In an interview with Voice of America, the current Prime Minister of the transition government said that Mali must find new partners as security deteriorates, and as France and its Western partners withdraw. According to Mali-based political analyst Baba Dakono, the prospect of using mercenaries in the country does not bode well for the country’s security. The deployment of Wagner, he said, will further erode security and be counterproductive for Mali’s CT strategy.

The continued rise of extremist groups has stoked fears that al-Qaeda and IS will establish a haven in the country and further destabilize the greater Sahel. Mali’s volatile political arena will likely continue to undermine CT missions and make its Western allies hesitant to support its efforts. While Mali is due to hold elections in February of next year, the military’s recent seizure of power threatens the viability of a democratic transition that could lead to re-established ties between the West and Mali. A Malian deal with Wagner would likely preclude future security partnerships between Western nations and Mali, and Wagner’s heavy-handed approach to CT could further destabilise the country.

Image: MINUSMA/Gema Cortes via Flickr

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