Mali: Wagner Group Stranded


March 9, 2022: While the French counterterrorism forces have been forced out of Mali, the UN peacekeeper force is still there and the UN is able to investigate the growing number of incidents where the army is accused of terrorizing civilians in Central and northern Mali that were suspected of supporting Islamic terrorists or tribal militias that had clashed with soldiers.

The military government has also seen the French ambassador leave and economic sanctions imposed. The officers running the military government seem unconcerned because they have access to income from gold mines in Mali, which has become a major producer of gold.

Mali also has rich farmland in the south and exports a lot of food. There is a desert and semi-desert area north of the Niger river that has less than ten percent of the population and causes a disproportionate number of problems. Most of the northerners are Tuareg and a smaller number of Arabs. Both of these groups are ethnically different from the 90 percent of the 20 million Malians living in the well-watered south. The only reason the ethnically different north is part of Mali is because when France organized its Mali colony it incorporated the northerners because to the north of Mali were Arab majority nations that did not want more of those troublesome Tuaregs. The black African Mali majority does not want to cut the north loose, as many Tuareg want, because the northerners would still be a problem for Mali. The northerners are better fighters and have defied southern control since Mali became independent in the 1960s. Historically the Tuareg were responsible for many raids on the more populous and prosperous south.

This northern problem kept Mali from achieving peace and prosperity. In 2021 the situation got worse when there was another military coup. This one was an internal dispute among army officers upset about corrupt civilian members of the interim government and the prospect of the army losing power after new elections. Since the May 2021 coup foreign donors have warned that most of the foreign aid will stop coming if Mali does not carry out a significant reduction in corruption, government ineffectiveness and overall instability. None of these three military takeovers were about corruption, but rather anger at the corrupt politicians stealing money meant to finance operations against Islamic terrorist and separatist minorities in the north. The colonels running the military government are unwilling to step down and are trying to make it on their own, despite the large number of UN peacekeepers and French troops dealing with the Islamic terrorist problem up north.

The May coup was led by the army colonel who had earlier been appointed deputy head of the CNT (National Transitional Council). The colonel replaced the civilian who originally held the job as CNT leader. After that the military-dominated CNT rapidly replaced many existing CNT officials with army officers or civilians known to be pro-military. When foreign donors, including France, criticized this, the army threatened to seek financial aid elsewhere.

For countries dependent on foreign trade and foreign aid, ignoring what the trading partners and aid donors think is a no-win situation. The trade partners can take their business elsewhere, where there are fewer problems. For the foreign aid groups, they are faced with a global situation where need far exceeds the aid available. That has led to triage, in which recipient nations or regions that use the aid less effectively, usually by diverting much of it to corrupt rulers or rebel leaders, get less. A military coup is usually a sign of problems and threat of damaging triage.

By 2022 most foreign aid was gone and Mali was bankrupt, but the military government was not. The threats from the military said a lot about their motives, which was mainly about maintaining their power and helping themselves to a portion of foreign aid. The coup leaders did have one source of wealth, the Mali gold mines. In late 2021 protestors tried to block access to one of the largest mines but that effort only lasted a few days before the security forces cleared the roads.

In 2021 the Mali military government proposed spending $10.8 million a month to hire a thousand Wagner Group military trainers. These trainers will also accompany some Mali troops into combat zones but will not operate as combat units unless paid for that and the combat surcharge is more than what Mali is paying for training. Wagner Group had been busy during the last decade and still has, or recently had contingents in Libya, Syria, Central African Republic and Mozambique. Against poorly armed and trained local irregulars the Wagner personnel are effective, but against professionals. like Turks in Libya and Americans in Syria, they take heavy losses and back off. Wagner Group is unique among military contractors in that it was created by Russian president Vladimir Putin and reports directly to him. Putin asked a veteran spetsnaz (special operations) officer to organize and run the operation whose name comes from the radio call sign its commander once used. Wagner does not work for free; every customer has to pay and several African governments are doing so. Since Wagner Group personnel must get paid, they are largely unaffected by the new economic sanctions on Russia. Travel to and from Russia is now much more difficult, time-consuming and expensive because of most nations closing their airspace to Russia. The banking sanctions make it much more expensive for Wagner Group members to send money back to families or bank accounts in Russia. This makes Wagner Group more affordable because Wagner is currently on its own. Even with more affordable Russian mercenaries, the Mali military government is losing several thousand Western troops who handled training as well as counterterror operations. A thousand Wagner Group men will not replace all the expelled Western troops.

Wagner personnel began arriving in December 2021 and their first task was to build a base near the airport outside the capital. The Wagner personnel flew in on transports operated by the Russian military. By the end of February, when the Russia air travel restrictions began, Wagner personnel were still arriving but the total number was about 500, not the thousand the Mali military government wanted. How Wagner copes with the new situation should be revealing.

Wagner Group also provides media and political support to local governments that hire them. An example of this is Russia and the Mali coup leaders both accusing the French of sustaining colonial rule. This angle serves the coup leaders and Wagner because it makes it patriotic to expel some contingents of European troops. Wagner is also foreign, but they have been hired by the coup government and thus considered serving Mali, not practicing some form of colonialism. French and foreign donor efforts against corruption are portrayed by the corrupt coup leaders as another example of French colonialism. This may seem absurd to outsiders but the coup government controls most mass media, the security forces and can justify attacking any hostile demonstration and protecting supportive ones.

The sanctions on Russia are not the only money problem the military has to deal with. At the start of 2022 Mali defaulted on more of its foreign debt. So far Mali is unable to make payments on $180 million in debts. This is partially due to the reductions in foreign aid because of the ongoing corruption and refusal of the military government to hold elections. The best the military government could do was promise elections in five years. That was answered with major cuts to foreign aid.

Islamic terrorists are a growing problem in Mali. A decade ago, most of the Islamic terrorists were in the north but now most of them are south of the Niger river and few of them are Arabs or Tuareg. African Islamic terrorists believe a religious dictatorship will solve the problem but that has never worked either. Captured Islamic terror group records always include complaints about corruption, and that occasionally makes the news when a terrorist leader absconds with a large amount of money. Islamic terrorism is another form of civil war, by religious zealots against an elected government or, more likely, a dictatorship or military government.

March 7, 2022: In central Mali (Mopti) a roadside bomb was used against the armed escort of a supply convoy, killing two peacekeepers and wounding for others.

March 4, 2022: In the northeast (south of Gao) dozens of Islamic terrorists attacked an army camp, killing 27 soldiers and wounding 33. The army responded with a sweep of the area that 70 Islamic terrorists were killed or captured. Gao is near where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. The three borders area has been a terrorist hotspot for over three years because Islamic terror groups can just cross the border to escape heavy counterterrorism efforts. For that reason, this area has been called the Menaka Region. Previously this area was just part of the larger Gao Region, centered on one of the few cities in the north. Menaka has become ungovernable because so many Islamic terrorists and bandits now operate here. The counterterrorism forces search for and attack specific targets but the government is unable to maintain sufficient security forces here to provide a measure of law and order found in the rest of the country. To make matters worse French and other European counterterrorism forces are leaving the area, at the request of the Mali government.

February 23, 2022: In the north (outside Timbuktu), Mali troops, working with some of the remaining European special forces personnel, carried out raids on known or suspected locations used by Islamic terrorists as bases or safe houses. Fifteen locations were found to be used by Islamic terrorists and 19 Islamic terrorists were killed and large quantities of equipment seized. This included 49 motorcycles, a favorite form of transportation for the Islamic terrorists. Eight people were arrested over the three days of the operation. This may be the last such large-scale operation because the departure of the French counterterrorism forces means the loss of a decade of experience the French has accumulated in the north. Further south, in the Menaka Region eight soldiers died during an operation that killed 57 Islamic terrorists, many of them from bases in nearby Burkina Faso and Niger.

February 22, 2022: In the north, across the border in western Niger, Islamic terrorists attacked civilians in two instances, killing 18 civilians and wounding eight.

February 19, 2022: In the north (outside Gao) several days of attacks against civilians by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) gunmen left at least 40 civilians dead. ISIL was punishing civilians accused of supporting a rival Islamic terror group.

February 18, 2022: In the north (outside Gao) eight soldiers were killed and 14 wounded during a battle with Islamic terrorists. The army had air support and killed over fifty of the Islamic terrorists.

February 17, 2022: France completed the withdrawal of its troops, and civilian specialists working in the government, from Mali.

February 13, 2022: In central Mali (Niafunke) Islamic terrorists attacked an army camp, killing two soldiers. The attack was repulsed, with the loss of five attackers.

February 5, 2022: The Mali military government expelled the French ambassador.

February 3, 2022: In the north (Menaka Region) during a six-day joint army-French operation to sweep the area for Islamic terrorists, French UAV aerial surveillance spotted a large number of Islamic terrorists travelling on a rural road in trucks and motorcycles. Nearby Mali and French troops were directed to intercept the column while a French airstrike halted the column and ultimately dozens of vehicles were captured or destroyed and at least 30 Islamic terrorists killed.


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