Mali: Be Careful What You Wish For


June 1, 2022: The military government has forced French counterterrorism forces out of the country, and withdrawn from the EU supported G5 Sahel Counterterrorism force. Over the last few years, French voters grew discouraged about continuing to support peacekeeping in Mali and counterterrorism efforts throughout the Sahel region. With nearly 10,000 French and regional (G5) troops gone, Mali would prefer to keep the 13,000 UN peacekeepers that maintains government control over the rebellious north. These peacekeepers are supplied by AU (African Union) nations and some of the African nations supplying these peacekeepers are withdrawing that support. A few percent of the peacekeeping force consist of troops from NATO nations that supply specialized services, especially transport helicopters and other services. Currently the foreign contingent is about a thousand German troops.

The UN threatens to withdraw its peacekeepers because Mali is paying for about a thousand Russian mercenaries (Wagner Group military contractors) as well as buying weapons from Russia, which is banned from selling weapons to foreign nations. Russia is under severe economic sanctions because of its recent Ukraine invasion but Mali gets around that by paying Russia in gold. Mali is a major producer of gold and Russia has a large gold stockpile for emergencies. Russia will accept gold for the weapons and Wagner Group contractors. Russia also supplies pilots and maintainers for the eight Russian helicopters Mali has received since 2017. Most of the helicopters are flown by Russian pilots with a Mali co-pilot who is learning how to operate the new helicopters.

Wagner Group operations use Russian methods, which involve terrorizing civilians believed cooperating with Islamic terrorists. Wagner Group operates mainly in central Mali, where, Wagner Group men accompany Mali troops on surprise attacks, often in towns where Islamic terrorists are known to be active. The Russian transport helicopters are often used to carry the ground assault force. The Mali troops speak the local languages and are better able to spot known or suspected Islamic terrorists. The Wagner Group men, most of them veterans of Russian special operations or airborne units, have combat experience and pass that on to the Malian forces. This produces thousands of civilian casualties. This is one reason for UN threats to withdraw all peacekeepers, who are essential to keeping the north under government control. This is mainly because of the Wagner Group, which has been accused of using unacceptable (to the UN) tactics. The Russian presence threatens to end most foreign aid, including the 13,000 AU (African Union) peacekeepers that have policed the north since 2013. This is where most of the Islamic terrorist and ethnic conflict has always been found. 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.

Each year, in June, the UN votes on whether or not to keep the peacekeepers in Mali for another year. Three years ago, the UN began planning to reduce and ultimately end the Mali peacekeeping force, especially if there is not more progress in Mali. Being a peacekeeper can be a dangerous job, especially in Mali where peacekeeper casualties since mid-2013 were over 500 dead and wounded. Mali is the most dangerous peacekeeping operation the UN operates. Losses were much heavier among the Islamic terrorists. Since 2015 Islamic terrorist operations, mainly in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso has left 25,000 locals (civilians and security forces) dead and forty percent of those deaths occurred in Mali. In response to the terrorist threat France supplied an additional counterterrorism force (Operation Barkhane). These 5,100 French counterterrorism troops were always separate from the UN Mali peacekeepers because the French force deals with Islamic terrorism throughout the region and has a license to kill. UN peacekeepers mainly defend and are rarely given permission to search and destroy. Since 2018 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. Western nations have long contributed small contingents who operate transport helicopters and surveillance UAVs. Sometimes they send small teams of special operations troops.

France has been reducing its counter-terrorism forces since 2018 and trying to replace them with special operations troops from African nations also threatened by the growth of Islamic terrorism in Africa during the last decade. The local G5 Sahel counterterrorism force was seen as a better peacekeeping solution because it consists of the best troops from five Sahel nations (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) and is capable of dealing with Islamic terrorism throughout the Sahel, which is the semi-desert belt below the Sahara Desert that extends across most of Africa. The problem is that the least effective G5 contingent comes from Mali, which has long had a reputation for the least effective military in the area,

G5 began operations in early 2018 after three years of planning and preparation. In late 2016 the countries involved agreed on the details of G5. This included who would provide what in terms of the 5,000 soldiers and police needed and where they would be based. The G5 force was to be stationed in three operational areas along with troops familiar with local conditions. Sahel East consists of troops from Chad and Niger. Sahel Central is staffed by troops from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso while Sahel West mainly uses troops from Mali and Mauritania. The G5 force has been most active in the three borders area (where borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet) and found itself spending more and more time in this terrorist hotspot. A successful G5 Force would enable France to shrink and eventually disband the force of 4,000 French troops it has deployed in the Sahel since 2013 and reduce the 13,000 strong UN peacekeeper force in Mali. Increasingly, central Mali is where there has been more and more Islamic terror group activity, not all of it violent.

The Russian presence led Mali to withdraw from the G5 force as well as ordering all French counterterrorism forces out. The other G5 members saw that as the end of the G5 force. The growing Russian presence is what threatens the continued presence of the peacekeepers. This is because the UN presence also enables investigations of alleged atrocities committed by Mali soldiers or police. This has been a problem for decades and led to the 2011 rebellion in the north that in turn led to a military coup in Mali and the military intervention of France to keep the north part of Mali.

The UN peacekeeper presence means the UN is able to investigate the growing number of incidents where the army is accused of terrorizing civilians in Central and northern Mali, usually because the civilians were suspected of supporting Islamic terrorists or tribal militias that had clashed with soldiers. The military government can now block some of those investigations because Russia will use its UN veto to block certain investigations.

The military government expulsion of French troops and the French ambassador caused economic sanctions to be imposed. The officers running the military government seem unconcerned because they have access to income from Mali gold mines. 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 current 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 who have long kept the Islamic terrorist problem up north under control.

The May 2021 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 Mali military government is apparently spending $10.8 million a month to hire a thousand Wagner Group military contractors and these began arriving in December 2021. 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. 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 are 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 to justify attacks on hostile demonstration and protection of supportive ones.

The Russian presence is not the only 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.

The loss of over 20,000 foreign troops (peacekeepers and foreign special operations forces) will cause a lot more violence in Mali and so far, the military government seems unconcerned. This sort of mismanagement is why Mali became the center of a growing Islamic terrorist problem in the first place.

Islamic terrorists are a growing problem in Mali. A decade ago, most were in the north but now most of them are south of the Niger river and few 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. This is another case of “Be Careful What You Wish For” turning into a disaster. Mali’s neighbors have long considered Mali as more of a problem than a helpful neighbor. Now the neighbors will concentrate on isolating themselves from Mali and that will mean seeking some of those 20,000 foreign troops Mali ordered out. Mali now has only about 14,000 troops and paramilitaries, including the thousand from Wagner Group, to handle security previously supplied by 33,000 foreign and Malian troops. Taking security advice from Russia is not a good idea, as Russian discovered in Ukraine. Some members of the Mali military government are having second thoughts if only because the numbers don’t add up to anything that will benefit Mali.

May 27, 2022: In the northeast (south of Gao) IGSS (Islamic States in Greater Sahara) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members near the Niger border have taken advantage of the departure of French counterterrorism forces. During the last six weeks IGSS launched a number of attacks and appeared intent on taking control of the border between Mali and Niger. Mali responded early on with one of their Russian armed helicopters. This failed when the helicopter attacked a group of Mali civilians fleeing the area thinking they were Islamic terrorists. After that Mali did nothing about the situation as its security forces and the UN peacekeepers were busy elsewhere. The Niger government was also unable to respond and is seeking to negotiate the deal with IGSS. This area has been a terrorist hotspot since 2018 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. The area being fought over is near where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. Menaka has become ungovernable because so many Islamic terrorists and bandits now operate here. The French counterterrorism forces regularly searched for and attacked specific Islamic terrorist targets. The Mali government has no clear plan for dealing with this situation. Having defeated Mali and Niger forces in the area, IGSS turned to Burkina Faso, where as many as fifty civilians have died in the last few days.

May 20, 2022: The Mali foreign minister visited Moscow to confer with Russian officials about increasing trade and military assistance. Both Mali and Russia now agree that NATO is evil and controls the UN while also seeking to isolate Russia. This was the Mali foreign ministers’ second visit to Russia. The first was in November 2021, where the current arrangement was worked out.

May 18, 2022: In the capital police arrested twelve senior army officers and accused them of planning a coup against the current military government. Several other army officers were arrested and charged with corruption and stealing money. Rumors of another coup have been circulating because it was no secret that many military and civilian leaders opposed the loss of the French and G5 counterterrorism forces Neighboring Burkina Fas0 also had a coup in January, with the army complaining that the elected government was not doing enough deal with the growing Islamic terrorist activity. Since then, the Islamic terrorist attacks, and civilian casualties, have increased even more than in Mali. In the first three months of 2022 over 500 civilians were killed by security forces and Islamic terrorists. This is more than three times the deaths during the previous three months. The security forces are the worst offender and coup leaders don’t seem to have a solution.




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