How France lost Mali… and the Sahel

“The French military, suffused with colonial ideology and stuck in obsolete schemas of the ‘War on Terror,’ is incapable of correctly analyzing the situation. Caught between French decision-makers unwilling to lose face and African leaders shirking their responsibilities, it is multiplying mistakes and abuses.”

Thus reads a passage (like all passages quoted here, it’s my translation from the original French) at the beginning of Le Mirage Sahélien by French journalist Rémi Carayol. Having covered the Sahel region for over a decade, the author has a clear vantage point on France’s military intervention there. While the early chapters focus on the French government’s dishonest justifications of Operation Serval (2013-2014), the book’s most valuable contribution is its analysis of the many flaws that condemned Operation Barkhane (2014-2022) to failure.

Of these, three hold special prominence. The first is the rigidity with which French politicians and military commanders alike framed the operation (initially in Mali, and then throughout the region) within the logic of the “global war on terror.” Buying into the twin discourses of counterterrorist doctrine and the “clash of civilizations,” policymakers in Paris and commanders on the ground wound up getting entangled in their very own forever war against a poorly understood enemy.

The Sahel’s “terrorists,” Carayol contends, are “largely a fantasy, the reflection of French elites’ buried anxieties and desires.” Combatants in jihadi groups like JNIM or EIGS are driven less by religious ideology than by local agendas and grievances. Yet French leaders persist in seeing them as bent on the destruction of French civilization and values. Crowding out nuance and any possibility of negotiation, this perspective has ensured the primacy of military over political considerations throughout the French policy apparatus in the region. Sensitive matters such as the schedule of Mali’s 2013 elections came to be dictated not by conditions on the ground in Mali, nor even by the French foreign ministry, but by defense planners in Paris. With France’s civilian politicians failing to ask hard questions of their military counterparts, the French armed forces doubled down on their losing strategy, escalating the use of armed drones throughout the Sahel and replicating the Pentagon’s “lawn-mowing” counterterrorism approach in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A second and arguably more important flaw consists of the neocolonial reflexes that have pervaded France’s actions in Africa since well before 2013. These reflexes have been apparent at every level of the policy apparatus. At the bottom, Carayol documents many French officers’ troubling and uncritical obsession with their forces’ colonial history. “While it is long past, the ‘blessed’ time of the colonies remains firmly rooted in officers’ memories,” he writes. In the middle, he exposes the veneer of multilateralism which French officials have used to mask their own political and military over-investment in the region: the G5 Sahel, Task Force Takuba, the EU Training Mission, even the UN response to Mali’s crisis all bear French policymakers’ imprint. At the top, Carayol lambastes French presidents’ tone-deaf public statements and their imperious treatment of their African peers.

While its critique of French policy is blistering, this book also shuns the common myths of French master plans to loot the Sahel’s minerals, destabilize its governments, or occupy its territory ad infinitum. It would be more accurate to say that France has no master plan: under two different presidents, it has stumbled blindly from crisis to crisis in the region. From Carayol’s perspective, neocolonialism lies less in France’s motives than in its enduring assumptions. In lieu of a long-term strategy, this book documents a series of ad hoc decisions made by a succession of civilian politicians and military commanders whose instincts were tainted by ethnocentrism and paternalism, sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit. The author describes French officials’ overarching error as believing “that they could help to rebuild a state using their own timetable, largely defined by military objectives, and their own conception of res publica–a secular, centralized state with representative democracy–without taking into account the political dynamics, socioeconomic shocks, cultural realities, and especially Malians’ expectations.”

So if French officials weren’t after Mali’s natural resources, what were they after? In a word, relevance–which brings us to the third major flaw of French intervention in the Sahel. For years, Carayol writes, “France has been obsessed with the risk of being ‘downgraded’ in the community of nations and is doing everything to ‘keep its place’ as a ‘great power.’” Deploying troops to Mali in 2013 demonstrated that France could still project power and play a role in managing conflicts around the globe. This demonstration seemed to justify France’s contested permanent seat on the UN Security Council, re-legitimized the French military in the eyes of foreign governments and French parliamentarians, and headed off severe cuts to defense spending. (In 2016, I wrote that initial French accounts of Operation Serval similarly tried to use the deployment to make the case that France and its military mattered in the global order.) They didn’t intervene in Mali because they had to but because they could. Partner governments and international organizations deferred to what they perceived as France’s incontestable “expertise” in its former colonies. One can hope, particularly given the events of the past year, that such deference won’t be forthcoming in the future.

A toxic combination of ideological inflexibility, colonial impulses, and ulterior political motives emanating from Paris gradually turned public opinion against French troops and French policies in the Sahel. These internal contradictions, not Russian disinformation, doomed Barkhane and prompted military rulers and ordinary citizens alike to reject continued French presence in their countries–Mali in 2022, Burkina Faso in 2023. To Carayol, France’s war against terrorism will never be winnable, even in its latest revision. Since Barkhane’s official end and the transfer of French bases from Mali to Niger last year, France’s military operations in the Sahel have continued with no sign that French leaders have learned from past mistakes. Until they do, all we can expect from their efforts is more drone strikes, more insecurity, and more public backlash.

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4 Responses to How France lost Mali… and the Sahel

  1. Coleman says:

    Thanks for the book review, karamɔgɔ. I wasn’t aware of the book or the author’s work before this!

  2. Hi Bruce … Thanks! I meant to write when this was first posted that it made me feel better about hearing that morning on BBC that BF was asking the French military to leave. … Take care!

  3. Anton Op de Beke says:

    Bruce, what I would hope to learn from a Mali insider-of-sorts like you is more about “the realities on the ground” as you put it in your Jan. 16, 2013, post commenting on Serval. There is plenty of analysis on what outsiders have done wrong, whether good willing but naive and arrogant (the French) or ill willing and brutal and rapacious (the Russians–don’t forget Moura). But surely that does not explain what is going on in Mali. What are the realities on the ground that have pushed the country into this downward spiral of governance? That is the big question.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I beg to differ: the mistakes of outsiders can explain a lot of what’s going on in Mali. Not everything, but a great deal. Surely we cannot understand Mali’s present conditions without reference to those mistakes.

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