Since 2020 Mali’s new military regime has distanced itself from France and got closer to Russia. French troops, fighting Al-Qaida and ISIS affiliates there since 2013, are now pulling out.
On 31 January French army chief of staff General Pierre Schill said of his country’s intervention in the Sahel, ‘We’re getting used to being the Americans in this coalition.’ It was a clumsy comparison, coming after the US humiliation in Afghanistan, which had ended in chaos. However, it said much about the issues at stake.
But on 17 February, France announced it was withdrawing its troops from Mali, where — under Operation Serval, then Operation Barkhane — they have been fighting political-military movements claiming allegiance to Al-Qaida or ISIS since January 2013. Over the years, France has managed to mobilise support from several European countries, including special forces from countries participating in the Takuba Task Force, and African battalions from the G5 Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) joint force.
Eight years on, at least 2,800 jihadists are thought to have been killed during French-led operations across the region; French casualties total 58. There are no official figures for African armies’ casualties, estimated to be in the hundreds. Civilian casualties are thought to be in the thousands.
Since the August 2020 coup that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who was close to France, Mali has been in political crisis. Operation Barkhane initially kept working with the Malian army and interim government, but relations deteriorated when the vice-president, Colonel Assimi Goïta, carried out another coup in May 2021; this January he postponed the general election scheduled for February. Goïta, whose aims are unclear, avoids the limelight allowing his prime minister, Choguel Kokalla Maïga, and foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, both hostile to France, to take centre stage.
Young people join armed groups because they have no prospects, and experience intercommunal tensions, not because there are French troops in the regionPascal Ianni