France, the former colonial power in Mali and most of the Sahel region, withdrew all its forces in August. Who will fill the vacuum and how will this translate into the political dynamics on the ground? Analysis by Al J. Venter, who recently spent a month embedded with a NATO tactical detachment in the Malian war.
As France withdrew the last of its 5,100 fighting forces from Mali in August, the situation was quickly dubbed ‘Africa’s Afghanistan’, implying that it is now completely vulnerable to take-over by the jihadist groups that have been waging a blood soaked war in the region.
There are differences though. France, unlike the US, has not capitulated to an organisation it set out to remove twenty years ago; instead, the presence of France has been made virtually untenable by the current military junta ruling Mali, as well as the local population. Reports indicate that the French had hardly completed their exit when Russian mercenaries believed to be from the notorious Wagner Group started moving in.
The French forces left Mali after 10 years of being engaged in a bitter campaign, both on the ground and diplomatically. As the last of the troops were leaving, Col. Abdoulaye Maiga (the then Government Spokesman) said: “President Macron should permanently abandon his neo-colonial, paternalistic and patronising posture to understand that no one can love Mali better than Malians.”
Col. Maiga has accused France of espionage, violations of sovereignty and supporting jihadists. He even requested the UN Security Council meet to stop French ‘acts of aggression’.
But the departure of the French forces has not calmed the political situation in a region that has now become synonymous with coups. A short while after the last of the French troops had left Mali, news arrived that the country’s civilian Prime Minister, Choguel Maiga, had been admitted to hospital.
According to Jeune Afrique magazine, he had suffered a stroke but the authorities denied this, saying he needed a rest on doctor’s orders. Maiga, a former opposition leader, was named PM of the transitional government led by a military junta which seized power in a coup in August 2020 and pledged to hold democratic elections in 2021.
In late August he was replaced by Col. Abdoulaye Maiga (not a relative despite the same surname), who will now rule together with Col. Assimi Goïta as President.
Meanwhile the UN’s peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA reports that at least 50 civilians were killed by the Malian army, aided by ‘foreign troops’ in an incident in April.
According to the UN, the massacre in the Dounentza region came after an improvised explosive device hit a military convoy. The UN has claimed that the army summarily executes civilians as they continue the battle against various groups linked to terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
These new developments muddy an already murky picture. There was an attempted coup thwarted in Bamako last May – reported by France 24 to have been backed by an unnamed Western country – all of which underscores political discord within the ruling ranks. But then that’s the way things go with oligarchies.
Look at the facts: The country’s military-dominated government has broken with its traditional and once-trusted partner France and in turn, forged close ties with Russia in its battle against the jihadists.
Reviewing the timeline of disintegrating relations, Paris announced on 17 February that France as well as several EU states and Canada would withdraw their troops and military resources from Mali. “This development,” wrote Catrina Doxsee, Associate Director and Associate Fellow, Transnational Threats Project and Jared Thompson, Research Associate, Transnational Threats Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “will primarily affect Operation Barkhane, a French-led counterinsurgency operation (and the largest external counterterrorism force) in the Sahel, as well as the complementary Takuba Task Force, a grouping of European special forces units that support local counterterrorism efforts. Currently, approximately 2,400 of France’s 4,300 troops deployed in the Sahel are stationed in Mali.”
Operation Barkhane was considered the single beacon of hope since it replaced Operational Serval in 2014.
“Indeed, at the core of France’s withdrawal is the belief that Mali’s transitional government is an untenable counterterrorism partner and that it is unwilling or unable to address the growing web of security and governance issues in the country,” they wrote.
Barkhane achieved a remarkable record of military successes, including orchestrating the deaths of three of the five major terrorist leaders, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Abd el-Krim and Omar Ould Hamaha. The two others, Iyad ag Ghali and Mokhtar Belmoktar, fled the country.
Earlier this year, Bamako also fell out with more of its allies. Denmark ordered its forces out of Mali after the ruling junta accused Copenhagen of sending replacement troops into the country without permission.
That was followed in July by an order suspending the relocation of 15,000 UN MINUSMA troops, the first time this has taken place since the establishment of UN Peacekeeping Operations in 1948.
More recently, Germany suspended most of its operations after Bamako denied flyover rights to its UN mission. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock accused Mali’s government of having “torpedoed time and again” the Bundeswehr’s efforts.
Relations between France (and its Western allies in the Sahel) and the junta in Mali have always been rocky and seem to have hit rock-bottom.
Analyst Nathaniel Powell, writing for War on the Rocks, said earlier this year: “France’s departure from Mali overwhelmingly represents a French failure. What began in 2013 as Operation Serval, a relatively clearly defined, locally popular, and successful operation aimed at clearing jihadists from their urban strongholds in the country’s north, has turned into a prolonged conflict which France has no capacity to win in any meaningful sense.”
He continued: “Despite a continuous French military presence since 2013, conflict has spread from Mali to Niger and Burkina Faso. Meanwhile, regional militaries seem no better prepared to effectively counter the jihadist threat. Indeed violence levels in the three countries have risen each year since 2017, reaching over 2,500 incidents in 2021 and nearly 6,000 deaths.”
He said France had also committed a number of political mistakes, including throwing up obstacles to negotiation efforts and a broader preference for ephemeral stability over accountable governance. These, he said, had been compounded by operational errors, notably through collaboration with armed groups, which both undermined local state authority and worsened ethnic tensions.
“All of these factors lead one to the unfortunate conclusion that France’s strategy has not only failed to achieve its aims, but has likely done more harm than good to regional stability and governance.”
The Center of Strategic and International Studies’ Doxsee and Thompson added: “France also lost the trust of the Malian population through a lack of transparency about civilian casualties during military operations. Bamako-based civil society activist Doussouba Konaté told one of the authors that a tipping point occurred in March 2021 when UN investigators revealed that a January 2021 French airstrike – ostensibly against a militant position – hit a wedding in central Mali and killed 19 civilians, contradicting the official French account of events.”
Open door for Russian influence
More saliently, Moscow put out the word locally that the presence of troops from the former colonial power, France, was little more than an ‘occupation force’. Three successive army mutinies in Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso against pro-Parisian leaders recently significantly weakened the Elysées’s alliances in its former African possessions.
There is no question that these shenanigans emboldened armed groups – al-Qaeda as well as Islamic State – and as a consequence, have opened the door to greater Russian influence.
Interestingly, exactly the same situation holds for the Central African Republic (CAR), where Russian diplomats and Moscow’s Wagner Force troops are making strong efforts to oust the UN Peacekeeping Force, MINUSCA.
In the war in the Sahel itself, conditions have deteriorated markedly. France has handed over several northern towns and strongpoints to the Mali Army, including Timbuktu, Kidal, Tessalit and others, with more to follow.
Paris meantime is relocating its operational configuration in the Sahel to the Niger Republic and Burkina Faso.
For now, the insurgency involving both AQIM and Islamic State is focused on the so-called ‘Area of Dispute’ in the southern reaches of the Sahel, where the frontiers of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso conjoin. Ultimately, it is accepted that the guerrillas will return to their old haunts in northern Mali.
The difference from before is that the jihadists – well-trained and armed and much more focussed than the country’s national army – are a good deal more active today than they have ever been. It helps their cause that age-old supply channels to bring weapons and supplies across the Sahara from Algeria and Libya have been re-established.
An immediate reaction of those who can afford it in northern Mali cities and towns, is to head south because it is only a question of time before either JNIM (al-Qaeda’s Mali affiliate) or Islamic State send in their raiding groups, often a hundred-strong, to tackle government forces.
Mali’s military made hasty tracks to the rear the last time the jihadists approached their defences in 2012 and you will have difficulty finding anyone willing to bet that it won’t happen again.
Recent pronouncements by both rebel groups suggest that the move is imminent, with government efforts to counter insurgent forces proving inadequate, Mali’s army having suffered severe losses in recent months.
This was highlighted by a jihadist attack at the southern town of Tessit in early August that left 44 Mali troops dead, with many others missing. Those figures are official, but personal contacts among pilots flying commercially and hauling out the wounded have told me that the casualty rate was considerably higher.
Of note here is that in almost a decade of fighting in the Sahel, France lost 55 of its soldiers and airmen (13 in a twin helicopter disaster in November 2019). Right now, Mali is losing almost as many each month.
Of all of Mali’s problems right now, corruption is as the most insidious, with little care or cure as to the consequences. How is it otherwise when scores of senior ranks are building luxury two-storey villas in the big city garrison of Kati, which lies roughly 15km south of Bamako and where, coincidentally, access is restricted to the media?
To top that, Mali’s defence budget details are secret and anyone suggesting corruption in the armed forces is jailed. It’s all there on YouTube if you care to search.
Senior officers argue that the country is rich, which is true: Mali is the third or fourth largest gold producer on the African continent and clearly, its present-day rulers want a share of the wealth.
Apart from senior officers being paid the salaries of ‘ghost’ battalions and a good deal of evidence of diversion of salaries, there is also a thriving business in what are termed ‘illegals’. That includes absurd items such as ‘bullet-proof’ socks (at $150 a pair), as well as ‘shot resistant’ goggles and body armour which, closely examined, are found to be made of cardboard and which impoverished troops are required to buy from their officers.
Disappearing vehicles and secret caches
Mali’s war has changed in other regards as well. What has always puzzled Coalition Forces in West Africa is that after attacks in desert areas, vehicles deployed by the enemy have simply disappeared. Even with multiple drones overflying hostile areas, there is rarely a vehicle in sight at first light, leaving no target for the French Air Force to blast.
The mystery remained until the French launched a combined cross-border operation northwards into an area regularly used by the insurgents and known as Passe de Salvador – a particularly remote and featureless terrain a day’s desert drive east of the village of Ghat, lying on the fringes of the Tassili n’Ajjer National Park in the Sahara.
Because the rebels now use increasing numbers of landmines, suspect routes and their surrounds are these days routinely swept for mines – which was just as well. A French combat unit went on to discover a fully-loaded truck – complete with mounted heavy machine-gun and half a ton of ammunition, buried in the sand.
That was a significant discovery and more have since been uncovered. While the French acknowledge that the insurgents routinely bury their bikes and equipment to avoid detection, secreting a compact Toyota pickup, which, with weapons and ammunition would weigh roughly two tons, and have a cab height of almost two metres, is no mean achievement.
However, willing manpower is something the radicals are not short of in those isolated regions.
That was followed by the uncovering of more supply caches stashed underground, some containing hundredweight bags of ammonium nitrate used for their IEDs. Notable here is the fact that of all France’s combat deaths in this war, half have been killed either by landmines or IEDs.
Another point underscored was that the jihadists are hardly short of technical expertise. Apart from fashioning sophisticated side bombs, which can blast one of France’s Giat 8×8 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles to scrap, the guerrillas have among the most sophisticated communications infrastructures in the Sahel.
Most comes from China, all solar cell powered and often hidden in difficult mountain terrain. There is a good deal of debate about who is funding this wherewithal.
The rebels have also taken to using drones (Chinese again). One UN electronics specialist disclosed that a pattern that appears to have emerged is that if a jihadist drone is spotted over an army camp or village, an attack might be imminent: the enemy likes to scout ahead. Hostile drones have also scoured from the skies over Bamako, the capital, but there have been no attacks (so far).
Takuba, most effective counter-insurgency force
The European decision to withdraw from Mali also means that its multinational Task Force Takuba, which now involves the Special Forces of almost a dozen European countries, will also pull out. It is not clear if they withdrawal is only limited to Mali or whether it will involve all engagements in the Sahel region.
Takuba was originally commissioned to advise, assist and accompany Malian Armed Forces, in coordination with G5-Sahel partners and other international actors on the ground, and was commanded by a Swedish general who has since departed. Though its future is uncertain, it is headquartered (for now) in the Mali towns of Gao and Menaka.
A late report, not yet confirmed, is that small rebel elements have infiltrated Menaka and that parts of the town are labelled ‘No Go’ by the Mali military. The insurgents were quick to move after the French pulled out the majority of their forces from this strategic town east of Gao and directly north of Niamey, the Niger capital.
In an unofficial briefing, I was told by one of its European officers that the unit has had a series of strategic and tactical successes, and for very basic reasons: Takuba works closely with the African military specialists of the country where it operates and with whom it has developed trusted relationships.
Second, Takuba is proactive. The task force spends most of its time, as my source phrased it, ‘looking for trouble’. That meant, he disclosed, ‘searching for the enemy’, colloquially termed Groupe Armé Terroriste or GAT.
Most important, not being part of the UN, they have total free rein to do what needs to be achieved; and Takuba is the most effective counter-insurgency force currently operational on the African continent.
At the time of going to press, there were 10 nations involved with Takuba, their elite combat units creating a versatile and highly mobile mainstay. In alphabetical order these are Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and Sweden (which is in the process of dismantling its forces). Most of these nations haven’t been involved in a real war for decades.
Their singular advantage is mobility, underscored by being supplied by the Royal Air Force and other air force Chinook helicopters in the field, together with the extensive use of drones that systematically patrol the skies over their operational areas.
Takuba has adopted many of the jihadist tactics employed in this war that stretches well into the Sahara. Since the rebels have always used motorbikes to good advantage (as the Taliban did in Afghanistan), bikes are now deployed against the jihadists by this Special Forces Squad that at last count, numbered 800 active combatants.
They have employed similar tactics against the weaponised pick-up trucks with which jihadist forces lead most of their attacks. These are often camouflaged in French Army livery and used to sneak past checkpoints, some of their crews even wearing lookalike French uniforms, complete with tricolour shoulder flashes.
Dubbed ‘Third World Chariots’, these vehicles are better known as ‘Technicals’ in Somalia and the Middle East, and have become a familiar feature in many conflagrations. With their 12.7mm or 14.5mm heavy machine-guns blazing, this weapon is capable of delivering withering fire and at speed.
In several surprise attacks in Mali’s disputed areas, the enemy have sometimes painted their bike helmets blue to confuse their adversaries into believing they were with the UN.
Takuba plays similar games, dressing its fighters in Arab or Tuareg garb and fielding the same Kalashnikovs with which the jihadists are supplied. Their numbers always include locals who are fluent in rebel languages and traditions.
In many ways, this is an old-fashioned soldier against soldier war with wins and losses often determined by knowledge of the terrain and the ability to spring surprises on the enemy. It seems unlikely that a military resolution will emerge in the near future – the real question is for how long will the European forces have the stomach to engage before, as happened in Afghanistan, they up stakes and simply leave.