A month ago France announced it was reducing its troop strength in Mali and adjacent countries. Since 2014 France has had about 5,000 of their own special operation troops, plus a few hundred from other NATO nations, operating in Mali seeking to reduce or eliminate Islamic terrorist activity. Called Operation Barkhane, it is being replaced by the smaller Operation Takuba, where no more than 500 French troops would be involved and matched by at least three times as many troops from other European nations. So far only about a third of needed non-French troops have been pledged. France will withdraw its current counterterror troops gradually, with about half gone by 2023.
While France had some logistical and intelligence collection assistance from the United States, Barkhane was mainly a French operation and was successful in reducing Islamic terror activity. This was costly for the French taxpayer and seemingly endless. Barkhane did inflict major damage on Islamic terrorists in the area, killing about one percent of them a year and inflicting major damage on their organization, including the loss of leaders, weapons and supplies. There were about as many Islamic terrorists in the area as French troops and the Islamic terrorists spent most of their time avoiding the French and keeping their drug and people smuggling operation, from central Africa to the Mediterranean Coast, going. There were terror attacks, but not a lot when you consider how many Islamic terrorists there were in the area. The French concentrated on those Islamic terrorists who still had time for killing and terrorizing civilians and peacekeepers. Despite the heavy losses the Islamic terrorists are still there because the widespread government corruption and tribal/ethnic fighter continues. In Moslem majority nations popular resistance to bad government tends to be taken over by religious zealots who justify all manner of violence because they are “defending Islam” from corrupt local rulers and non-Moslems or Moslems who openly criticize the Islamic terrorist motives and tactics.
Corruption has long been a major problem in Mali and Africa. Mali is one of the worst offenders. Corruption leads to misuse of foreign aid and in Mali the problems are made worse by tribal and ethnic feuds. Worldwide surveys of corruption have consistently put Mali among the 30 most corrupt nations, out of about 180 surveyed each year. In the last few years more Malians turned against the French efforts because Islamic terrorism was not an immediate threat to most citizens while the continued corruption and bad government were. For most Malians Islamic terrorism and ethnic disputes with the Arabs and Tuareg tribes of the north were less of a threat than the daily misbehavior and mismanagement of their elected officials.
The French were not the only foreign troops in Mali. Since 2013 13,000 African peacekeepers have policed the north, where most of the Islamic terrorist and ethnic conflict has always been found. In this environment peacekeeping was more dangerous. As a result, the peacekeepers suffered about 200 deaths per 100,000 troops per year (a standard measure of such things). This is largely because most of the peacekeepers are stationed in northern Mali, where most of these deaths occur. There was lots of violence up there since (and before) the peacekeepers arrived in early 2013. The peacekeepers are mainly African and the death rate has fluctuated from year to year, going as low as 130 per 100,000 per year. Since 2018 a lot of the violence has moved south to central Mali and the three-border area where the Mali army and tribal militias take most of the casualties.
While being a peacekeeper remains a dangerous job, it’s still less dangerous than places like Afghanistan, where in 2013 the rate was 200 per 100,000 for all foreign troops there. That was down from the peak 587 per 100,000 in 2010, which was about what it was during the peak years in Iraq (2004-7). The action in Mali is less intense than in pre-2014 Afghanistan or pre-2011 Iraq but is more than double the rate for peacekeepers worldwide. Total Mali peacekeeper casualties since mid-2013 are about 500 dead and wounded and losses but were much heavier among the Islamic terrorists. Because of the French counterterrorism operation the losses for the Islamic terrorists have been about 1,000 per 100,000.
The 5,100 French counterterrorism troops are separate from the Mali peacekeepers because the French force deals with Islamic terrorism throughout the region and has a license to kill. Over the last few years popular support for Barkhane in France declined and that led to efforts to get other nations to replace the French force completely or partially. Because of all this, the official end of Barkhane is not surprising. It was not a matter of if, but when.
France will continue to support local counterterrorism efforts, including one France played a key role in creating. This is the 5,000 strong G5 force, which was seen as a local complement to the French Sahel counterterrorism force. G5 troops are supplied by Mali and four neighboring countries while the EU (European Union) supplies millions of dollars a year to provide the G5 troops with additional equipment, weapons, training and supplements to their pay. This enables the French force to operate wherever it detects the presence of Islamic terrorists and needs cooperation from local counterterrorism forces they can depend on. Mali is the least dependable G5 country, which explains why Islamic terror groups selected Mali as the best candidate for an African sanctuary.
In Mali the corruption problem extends to those who claim they are fighting corruption. Mali is currently a very vivid example of this. Mali has suffered three military coups (government takeovers) since 2012. None of these 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. That crisis was not unexpected but the intensity of the violence in the north was, by 2011, more than the army was prepared for. Mali never needed much of a military and that was reflected in how decades of corrupt rulers treated it; as another source of jobs for supporters. Many of the officers thought otherwise and argued for more realistic treatment of the military and the threats it was facing up north.
Foreign aid donors agreed with the minority of Mali officers who called for more professionalism. The most popular, in the army, officers were both professional and corrupt and that’s how we got a military government that staged a coup against itself (the 2020 coup) this past May 24th.
The May 24 coup was not well received by foreign aid donors. This includes France, which pays for its 5,100 counterterrorism troops who operate throughout the region. The military was not happy with foreign donor demands that they cooperate with political factions that made possible the 2020 coup. These groups and the coup leaders formed the interim (and foreign donor approved) CNT (National Transitional Council) government. The foreign donors insisted that a civilian lead the CNT with one of the military coup leaders as his deputy. The army and civilian members of the CNT did not get along. The main disagreement that triggered the May coup was about efforts to negotiate with Islamic terror groups and ineffective measures to prosecute corrupt politicians.
May’s coup was led by the army colonel who was appointed deputy head of the CNT, and he replaced the civilian who originally held that job. The May coup promptly replaced many CNT officials with army officers or civilians known to be pro-military. When foreign donors, including France, criticized this, the army threatened to call on Russia to replace the Western foreign aid donors and troops in Mali. While this threat made for great headlines it ignored the reality of how Russia and China operate in Africa, where these two nations are often the cause of corruption and never the cure. Russia is too broke to provide foreign aid and if you want Russian troops or military contractors you have to pay for them, preferably in advance. China is even more mercenary, demanding payment in natural resources or other assets. China is a buyer, not a peacekeeper or charity. The Mali officers’ threats said a lot about their motives, which was mainly about maintaining their power and helping themselves to a portion of foreign aid.
The civilian reformers, who used to dominate the CNT, were not surprised at the treachery of the army officers, but were dismayed by the incorrigible attitudes of these officers. Most Mali voters reacted the same way. The new military-dominated CNT pledges to organize elections on time (early 2022) is seen as another scam. There are growing doubts among foreign aid donors and even many locals that the latest coup will solve any problems, and more likely create new ones.
July 2, 2021: France has lifted its June 3rd ban on cooperation with the Mali military because of the May coup. France took an active role in assisting its former (until the 1960s) colonies and were admired for that attitude because it has done better than doing nothing. France continues to offer university educations for promising students from the francophone (French speaking) students. This has created a large number of African politicians, business owners and military officers that French diplomats, reporters or tourists can talk to. Francophone Africans know the history and continuing tradition of corruption in France, but also realize the situation is worse in Africa and that is connected to less economic success in Africa. There are no easy solutions but at least the French have maintained discussions about it, often by French and African graduates of the same universities.
June 29, 2021: The UN has lifted its suspension on economic aid for Mali. The suspension was imposed after the May 24 coup. ECOWAS (Economic Community of 15 West African States) also suspended cooperation with Mali and has not lifted it yet.
June 25, 2021: In the north (outside Gao) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces carried out a car bomb attack on a temporary peacekeeper base. Thirteen European peacekeepers were wounded. This took place near the tri-border area where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. Most Islamic terrorist violence has been in the tri-border area. The Mali portion of the tri-border area was the original hot spot for Islamic terrorism in central Africa, predating the rapid growth, and decline of Boko Haram violence in northeast Nigeria between 2013 and 2016. Many Islamic terror groups prefer the tri-border area because they can escape a major counterterror operation in one country by just crossing the border. Since 2018 there have been two ISIL “provinces” in central Africa. The smaller one was ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara), which showed up in 2018. ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The other, slightly older and larger, ISIL province was ISWAP, which is actually a faction of the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic terrorists who had been around since 2004. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon.
In central Mali, local Islamic terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda used a roadside bomb to kill six Mali soldiers.
June 21, 2021: In central Mali armed men kidnapped five Catholics, including a clergyman, who were driving to a funeral. The five were released two days later, apparently because the kidnappers only wanted the car, and did not want to get involved with kidnapping or murder. Only about four percent of the population is Roman Catholic and they tend to live in Catholic neighborhoods in cities and largely Catholic villages in rural areas. Killing or kidnapping local Catholics is usually carried out by ISIL members, but in central Mali al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists are usually the culprit. Catholics generally fetch larger ransoms than local Moslems.
Elsewhere in Central Mali a suicide car bomber attacked a French recon patrol, wounding six soldiers and four civilians.
June 10, 2021: France announced that it was ending its large-scale Operation Barkhane counterterrorism effort.