From January 2013 through July 2014, the French military carried out on Malian territory a vast intervention codenamed Opération Serval. It has been reputed to be the largest unilateral overseas deployment of France’s armed forces since the Algerian war ended in 1962. The video below, an hour-long “documentary” by the French defense ministry, offers the official line on Serval, with its goal of “ending terrorist offensives, restoring Mali’s territorial integrity, and protecting 5000 French expatriates”; with gravel and gravitas, the narrator describes the operation as “simultaneously a formidable air-to-ground campaign, an immense logistical challenge, and an incredible ground maneuver.”
The video makes an effective tool for propaganda and recruiting purposes. But two years after Serval’s official end, how else might we remember the operation, what was it really about, and what can we learn from written accounts of it? Books germane to these questions have been published since 2014 by an American security analyst (Christopher Chivvis), a Serval commander (General Bernard Barrera), and a French military affairs author (Jean-Christophe Notin). None of the authors is a Mali specialist, but they can tell us a great deal about the international angles of Mali’s crisis.
Chivvis’s study (Cambridge University Press, 2016) offers the broadest and most positive assessment of Serval, detailing how Mali’s political and security crisis unfolded along with the international political dimensions of French intervention. Chivvis lauds France’s intervention in Mali as an effective, cheap, and “politically saleable” strategy to defeat terrorist groups on the ground. He notes that Serval cost France less than $1 billion through the end of 2013, compared to $745 billion spent on coalition operations in Afghanistan through 2014 and $823 billion in Iraq through 2012. Serval’s peak force-to-population ratio was just 0.7 troops per 1000 people in the host country population — far lower than for operations in Afghanistan (4.9 per thousand) and Iraq (6.4 per thousand). “Serval demonstrates that even a relatively small force can achieve military objectives decisively enough to have a positive impact on the broader strategic and political picture,” Chivvis concludes, hinting that France’s unilateral action in Mali might be the shape of things to come. In Africa, where “jihadist groups seem destined to remain a malignant growth for many years,” he suggests that Western militaries should perhaps be less risk-averse and more proactive in the future.
The account by General Barrera (Seuil, 2015) has a far narrower scope, being primarily the author’s journal for the period from his unit’s frantic mobilization in January 2013 until its return to France some four months later. Barrera offers glimpses of his own professional background (postings to Kosovo and Chad) prior to commanding what was then called the 3rd Mechanized Brigade, but most of his attention concerns Serval’s operational details. Despite contingency plans for just such a deployment, improvisation remains essential, the flip side of the low cost identified by Chivvis: after arriving in Bamako, the general sends his staff scavenging for spare parts, trucks, and satellite phones in local markets. Even weeks into Serval, many of his troops are still wearing heavy green uniforms for want of desert fatigues, and there aren’t enough brake pads to keep half his force’s AMX-10 armored cars roadworthy. This is “hegemony on a shoestring,” in some respects.
Equally striking is the weight of history in Barrera’s narrative. The author, the son of a veteran of the Algerian war, is steeped in his country’s colonial military exploits. “Spotting Niafounké on the map,” he writes, “I can picture my grandfather — an old colonial officer, during summers spent in his big Marseilles villa — telling stories of far-flung expeditions facing African spears, Chinese cannon, Moroccan sabers and muskets.” Launching an overland offensive to Timbuktu, Barrera notes that his troops follow the same route as the 1894 French expedition to take that fabled desert town. The general couldn’t escape this colonial legacy if he tried: his brigade inherited its nickname (“les Africains“) from a unit of Algerian infantry formed during the Second World War. After reaching Timbuktu he fulfills a boyhood dream by visiting the house once inhabited by explorer Réné Caillé. “History is never far away in Africa,” Barrera muses upon viewing the ruins of a French fort in Araoune. Any Malian intellectual or ancient combattant will tell you that France’s relations with Mali today cannot be understood without reference to their shared colonial past, and if this factor gets short shrift from Chivvis, it suffuses the pages of Barrera’s memoir.
Of the three books, however, I found Notin’s aptly named La Guerre de la France au Mali (Tallandier, 2014) the most informative. It’s an impressive work both in terms of quantity (600+ pp.) and quality, especially given that the author wrote it while Serval was still underway and apparently without going to Mali. A seasoned observer of the French military, Notin interviewed dozens of French officers and officials in researching his account. He offers an intriguing interpretation of the March 2012 military coup in Bamako: “It appears that non-commissioned officers’ desire not to be sent to the northern front was the true motive,” he writes, adding that Paris had been expecting a coup for a few weeks, but believed that senior officers would carry it out on March 24. It may be that Captain Sanogo and his cohort of junior officers, instigating their mutiny on March 21, beat them to the putsch.
Notin highlights the little-known contribution of a French task force in turning back the initial jihadi onslaught even before General Barrera or his men had reached Malian soil. Opération Sabre deployed to some of Mali’s neighbors including Burkina Faso in September 2012 on a “train and support” mission (as described in a contemporary press account). It was Sabre’s helicopters that struck jihadi fighters near Konna on January 10, 2013, and it was Sabre’s special forces soldiers who worked with Malian troops to hold the line until reinforcements arrived from Chad and France over the following days. Once Serval was underway, Notin writes, it was subject to unprecedented control (some might say interference) from the Elysée, which directed French forces to capture Timbuktu before the more strategically important city of Gao. “We needed a conquest with strong media resonance,” an unnamed adviser of President Hollande tells Notin. “And Gao means nothing to anyone. Unlike the mythical Timbuktu.”
With respect to France’s ties to Tuareg separatists, Notin has a great deal to say. He portrays MNLA rebels as determined but politically naive, unrepresentative and prone to misreading their support abroad. He airs a critique by Christian Rouyer, the French ambassador to Mali from 2011-2013, of what became France’s policy of isolating rebel-held Kidal from the zone of Malian government control. Wittingly or not, France helped bring about northern Mali’s de facto partition, but those inclined to view the MNLA as French stooges might be surprised by the much more ambiguous, contentious relationship depicted by Notin (not to mention Barrera).
Which brings me to a key question underlying my interest in all three books: What did France gain from its Malian military adventures? Chivvis and Notin dismiss the supposed allure of Mali’s natural resources as a fable; the total value of gold extracted annually from Mali, Notin points out, is worth less than half of what the French government spent on Serval in 2013 alone. And while Chivvis mentions “France’s yearning to serve as a global force for the revolutionary values of liberté, égalité, and fraternité,” I think the strongest motivations lie elsewhere.
One part of the story is domestic, with looming budget cuts to the overstretched French military in 2013 creating what Chivvis considers “an obvious incentive for the army to demonstrate that it remained essential to protecting French interests at home and overseas.” Serval permitted such a demonstration and offered an overdue morale boost for French ground forces. Notin concludes, for example: “The mechanized infantry regained its heart for the mission that it had not carried out on this scale since the Second World War.” The other part of the story is international: France wants to remain une nation cadre–a nation that holds a central place on the world stage. And as Chivvis puts it, “Africa was, after all, still one of the few, if not the only, corner of the world where France was unquestionably a great power.” Political and diplomatic clout derive in no small measure from a nation-state’s ability to project force far beyond its borders–and Serval provided an opportunity for France to do exactly that. The operation generated an operational model that “would arouse admiration and incredulity among the Americans and British,” claims Notin, and enabled the French air force to demonstrate “its capacity to wage an air campaign which, while certainly not of the scale of the Iraq war, was stretched between France, West Africa, and Chad, covering a much larger zone.”
Yes, on the pages of these books one can truly see French military muscles flexing. In some instances the muscles haven’t been exercised in decades: Notin mentions that before Serval, the armée française had not parachuted supplies during an operation since 1989, while Barrera describes the airdrop of heavy equipment into Timbuktu as “a capacity not used since Indochina” (Dien Bien Phu, to be precise). In other instances the muscles strain: in the first month of Serval, according to Notin, French aircraft sustained an “operations tempo” four times higher than NATO standards. And sometimes the flexing only happens with hired help: lacking sufficient cargo planes of its own, the French military contracted Russian Antonov jets to fly thousands of tons of personnel and equipment from French bases to Mali, at a cost of tens of millions of euros. But the muscles were flexed, and the message was sent. “To strike the jihadis in northern Mali was also to remind those who may have forgotten in the world that France could inflict great damage, very far from its borders, with unmatched responsiveness,” writes Notin. In other words, Serval’s showcase of military might proved that France is an important player in the 21st century.
Of its three stated objectives — “to secure Bamako, stop the jihadist insurgency, and allow Mali to regain its territorial integrity,” according to Chivvis — Serval fully achieved only the first. Two years after that mission officially ended, the insurgency continues, Mali remains divided, and French troops have not left Mali. But at the end of the day, I suspect it was Serval’s unstated objectives, having little to do with Mali, that mattered most. These objectives were shoring up support at home for the French military and proving to a skeptical world that France still matters. If the favorable accounts reviewed here are any guide, both objectives have been met.
Postscript, 3 October 2016: France2 television’s “Cellule de crise” show offers a 90-minute reconstruction of the onset of Operation Serval.