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  • Writer's pictureMichael Shurkin

Thoughts on France's Failure in Mali

Why France has Lost Mali: Confusing Necessity with Sufficiency, and the Failure to Communicate

France has lost Mali, though not to the jihadists it came to fight but rather to public opinion, and a populist military junta that rejects the kind of strong bilateral cooperation that alone can bring something resembling victory. The victory of the jihadists at this point is all but assured.

A lot can be and already has been said about what went wrong, much of it true. One key lesson that should not be lost, however, has to do with French strategy in the region, and France’s failure to communicate it. Interestingly, it is this failure as much as anything else that might turn out to be decisive.

French strategy in the Sahel resembles its classic counter-insurgency strategy and current American counter-insurgency strategy, namely in its emphasis on a “global approach” or, as it often is expressed today, the idea of the “three Ds,” defense, diplomacy, and development. In the contemporary French conception, the military handles defense, but other entities must take on the tasks of diplomacy and development. More to the point, as current French counter-insurgency doctrine states, most of the hard work involved in the global approach aside from combat must be done by the host nation, with the outside intervening force helping wherever possible. The French military intervention, known as Operation Barkhane, may be necessary, but the French themselves never imagined it would be sufficient. Indeed, Barkhane was never sized for anything like sufficiency, as there really is not a lot that a force that topped out at roughly 5,100 at its peak in 2020-2021 can do in a geographic space many times the size of France beyond play whack-a-mole on an epic scale. Overall success has depended on everyone else, chief among them Sahelian nations but also French and international civilian agencies, doing their part. An intervening foreign military might create “strategic opportunities,” which, if seized upon, could prove decisive. But it is up to others to do the seizing. Nothing the foreign military does, however, will ‘decide’ the conflict.

When one looks at how Malians and other Sahelians frame the conflicts in their region and describe the role they imagined the French might play, it becomes clear that while they ostensibly signed on to the French strategy, they have not understood where the responsibility of France and above all the French military ended. They imagined that Barkhane would be sufficient rather than simply necessary. Plenty of Western observers and journalists have made the same mistake and similarly concluded that because Barkhane has not been sufficient, it must have failed. Indeed, even asking if Barkhane failed suggests a fundamental misunderstanding: Barkhane did its job. Victory—and failure—depended on all the rest.

One reason for the misunderstanding is an over-estimation by many of what French military prowess can achieve. No irregular fighters can stand toe-to-toe with the modern French army and win, something the French proved in 2013 when it swept aside the jihadist columns that had brought Mali to its knees. That assessment, however, ignores the strategic irrelevance of tactical superiority in the context of an insurgency. Besides, given the small size of the French force, it could never hold territory or attempt anything like the “oil-spot” approach made famous by France’s colonial-era theorists of counterinsurgency, a time when France supplemented its expeditionary forces with local forces it raised and trained and led and with and with civilian colonial administrations. In Mali all that manpower would have to come from Malian security forces and administrators, the quality of which mostly was outside French control. Another reason is convenience: The alternative to thinking wishfully that France would make insurgents go away is assuming responsibility for one’s own shortcomings (i.e. why there’s an insurgency in the first place) and identifying and executing the necessary reforms and government interventions that might defuse local conflicts, enhance state legitimacy, and generate capable security forces. These tasks are herculean. They also often runs counter to local elites’ immediate interests. In this context, who would not prefer to expect the French provide solutions,. and then be able to blame them if they failed.

Indeed, the discovery of Barkhane’s insufficiency has led to disappointment, which has evolved into blame and rancor. France’s perceived failure, moreover, confirms for many their deep-seated antipathy toward France and encourages the search for alternative explanations. A common belief is that France in fact helps the jihadists and wants to prolong the war to perpetuate France’s military presence. This they see as a cover for France’s real motive: stealing the region’s natural resources. Indeed, the protestors who blocked a French military convoy in Burkina Faso and Niger in November reportedly believed it was delivering arms to the jihadists.

In some ways Barkhane really has failed. The French military justifiably can be accused of losing sight of its own insufficiency and the contours of its own putative strategy. I personally have seen and heard evidence of French officers being overly impressed by their tactical innovations and success. They really should know better. They may also have failed to articulate the insufficiency of military operations to France’s civilian leadership. This is understandable: Who likes to point out to one’s superiors that one’s efforts are not enough, especially when one is part of an institution that values a can-do attitude? France’s civilian leaders may not have paid enough attention to the non-military side of the campaign, the things that matter far more than the military side. They also may not have appreciated what it has meant for the tide of the war when Sahelian governments do not perform the tasks one hopes they might undertake. Or if they distract themselves with coups and internal power struggles? Or persist in counter-productive policies? What, in any case, can they do about it other than either abiding in silence or intervening, thereby violating sovereignty and opening Pandora’s box?

Arguably the greatest failure of Barkhane and the French more generally, has been to assume that Sahelian leaders and the Sahelian public would understand what they were up to, and understand and agree with the roles that French strategy implicitly and explicitly assigned to them. Certainly, one can read all about French strategy on French government websites, and French President Emmanuel Macron tried to communicate the French perspective in his visit to the region and 2017, and then the Pau summit in 2020. The latter, of course, is infamous for the tone of Macron’s “summons” to Sahelian leaders. Even the most charitable assessments of Macron’s efforts make clear that the French government has not undertaken the kind of robust and enduring dialogue with Sahelian leaders and the Sahelian public regarding the jihadist insurgency, what France can do about it, and what they need to do about it in their turn, that would be required for France and Sahelians to be on the same page. Sahelians after all have distinctly different perspectives on the conflicts in their region. They frame them differently. They have different ideas about what to do about them. They also have different priorities. The gap, in other words, between their understanding of what is happening and what needs to be done and that of the French government is enormous, and it looks to be fatal to the entire enterprise.

There is no guarantee that talking more with Sahelians would have improved the French intervention’s prospects, but it might at least have reduced some of the misunderstanding, and ideally even informed French policy and strategy. They might have done things differently had they better understood local perspectives. They might have concluded it would not work and abandoned the project. The public might have a different view of why things have gone badly, and what needs to be done about it. There might have been a broader conversation about the nature of the insurgency and strategies for dealing with it. Perhaps another way to put the matter is that better communication about French strategy would not have been sufficient for a better result, but it probably is necessary. Presently, it appears to be too late.

Interestingly, the French military, like other Western militaries, including America’s, acknowledges the importance of ideas and narratives in modern conflicts. They know that selling an intervention and strategic communications are now essential ‘warfighting’ capabilities. They insist they take these capabilities seriously: It is in their written doctrine and policy publications. It is also a key part of the whole concept of “multi-domain operations,” which the French have more or less adopted. The idea is to combine the “effects” of joint fires with actions such as information operations, often undertaken by non-military government agencies. those of non-military operations often undertaken by government entities other than militaries. Yet all the available evidence suggests those capabilities remain notional.

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