Washington Scrambles France’s Mali Exit Strategy

Paris wants out of the quagmire. Biden’s not offering any lifelines.

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French President Emmanuel Macron at a G5 Sahel summit.
French President Emmanuel Macron at a G5 Sahel summit.
French President Emmanuel Macron sits at a desk during the closing press conference at the G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania, on June 30, 2020. Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

More than eight years after France intervened in Mali to beat back an Islamist insurgency in the former French colony, French President Emmanuel Macron has made it clear he has had enough.

More than eight years after France intervened in Mali to beat back an Islamist insurgency in the former French colony, French President Emmanuel Macron has made it clear he has had enough.

But France is struggling to win American backing for its exit strategy at a time when French public opinion is souring on a distant, open-ended war in defense of a government that has repeatedly failed to make peace with its northern neighbors or to contain a spike in terrorist acts. The French moves come just weeks after Malian officers staged a military coup, the second in less than a year, raising concerns in Paris about the reliability of one of the French government’s most important counterterrorism partners in the region. 

In a speech earlier this month, Macron announced plans to withdraw a force of more than 5,000 French troops in the region as part of its Operation Barkhane, leaving behind a residual force of African and international special forces capable of carrying out targeted attacks on Islamist militants. “The time has come,” Macron said at a press conference, for a “profound transformation” of France’s military operations in the Sahel. 

The French retreat follows a retrenchment by the United States in its own counterterrorism campaigns, including plans to downsize its military presence in Syria and pull out of Afghanistan before the end of the year. 

“Strategists in Paris are convinced that there is a kind of shift in the Western counterterrorism paradigm,” said Michel Duclos, a former French diplomat who serves as special advisor to the Paris-based Institut Montaigne. “The idea of fighting against terrorism by going abroad, putting boots on the ground in faraway wars, this is an idea which is not anymore in the mood of Western powers.” 

“The French are famously independent,” he added. “But they can’t go against the general trend in the Western world.”

The French drawdown in the Sahel should not be viewed as part of a hard “exit strategy” but as part of a transition from a traditional French security operation to a wider multilateral effort to grapple with the Sahel’s security, political, and development challenges, according to Charles Thépaut, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute. 

“A key goal is increasing European and international contributions,” Thépaut said. “What is expected from the U.S. is not so much to lead this effort—which it is not willing to do—but to be supportive and to contribute. But the long-term trajectory is about strengthening national armies in the region to run these operations themselves.”

France is straining to put together a patchwork of disparate security pieces—including French, African, and European special forces, U.N. peacekeepers, and American intelligence experts—into a cohesive strategy capable of containing the region’s Islamist militants and preserving stability in Mali and its wider neighborhood. 

But Paris is encountering resistance at the United Nations from Washington on a critical plank in its Sahel strategy: its attempt to expand the supporting role of the U.N. in the counterterrorism effort. The United States has raised concerns about the price tag of a French proposal to enlarge the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, and it has voiced concern that the U.N.’s support for an African counterterrorism operation could entangle the organization in a regional counterterrorism fight it is unsuited to perform.

At the U.N. Security Council, the United States pushed back on a French initiative to authorize an additional 2,000 U.N. peacekeepers to Mali, where they would be tasked with reducing violence in central Mali. The French had hoped to have the mission’s enlargement approved by June 30, when the mission’s current mandate expires. American reservations have made that unlikely.  

The United States cited the lack of a detailed U.N. plan for the mission, outlining its costs and duties, and the need to notify Congress within two weeks of approving new peacekeeping commitments, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the negotiations. But the U.S. has not rejected the French proposal outright, leaving the door open to a possible agreement or compromise down the road. Washington is also reluctant to reward Mali’s military rulers, who seized power in a coup in May, by expanding a U.N. mission that already costs more than $1 billion a year and is charged with helping Bamako extend its control over the entire country.

The French are also promoting a separate initiative, which is being spearheaded by the Security Council’s African members, including Niger, to convince the Security Council to establish a U.N. support mission to help the African forces, funded by U.N. member states. The United States has also expressed misgivings about this initiative, arguing that it would draw the U.N. peacekeeping mission—which is tasked with stabilizing the country and promoting a political peace process between the government and armed groups in northern Mali—into a risky counterterrorist war. Washington is also concerned that the G5 Sahel, a counterterrorism force made up of troops from former French colonies in the region, may not live up to the human rights standards required in U.N. operations.

Despite their differences, the United States and France have cooperated closely on the Sahel, with Washington providing French forces with intelligence on terrorist operations and some logistical support. France’s dominant role in the region is particularly important at a time when China and Russia have been seeking to expand their influence in the region, including in Mali, where Russia reportedly trained some of the coup plotters, according to the Daily Beast.

France’s abdication comes as the Biden administration has yet to find its footing. Biden has yet to appoint top officials for the region. Mary Catherine Phee, a career foreign service officer tapped to be the State Department’s top official for Africa, has yet to get a date scheduled for a congressional confirmation hearing. While the new administration has engaged in the crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, it has yet to announce plans to name a special envoy for the Sahel, and a long-promised U.S. strategy for the Sahel has yet to emerge.

But there appears to be some appetite within the administration for reengaging in Africa in areas that former U.S. President Donald Trump chose to downgrade or ignore. The New York Times reported this week that the Pentagon is considering sending dozens of American troops back into Somalia after a Trump-ordered withdrawal late last year.

The Biden administration has expressed broad support for France’s counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel and has backed off of the Trump administration’s insistence that the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (known by its French acronym MINUSMA), which has around 15,000 troops and police deployed in Mali, develop a plan to downsize its operations. 

“We support the aims of the International Coalition for the Sahel to coordinate international support for the region, from building its capacity to fight terrorism to supporting economic development,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a February summit of the five African governments of the G5, which are leading regional efforts to combat terrorism. Biden also expressed support for the G5, saying the coalition “does vital work to bring security, stability, and good governance to your region. The United States is committed to being a strong partner to you.”

But Blinken said that a military counterterrorism strategy was not enough to bring about lasting stability in the region, highlighting the need to strengthen the rule of law, promote public services and economic opportunities, and ensure that security forces are held accountable for human rights abuses.

“Instability and violence are symptoms of a crisis of state legitimacy,” he added. “Historical social grievances, a lack of accessible public services, and exclusion from political processes—particularly for minority or marginalized communities—all of these erode the legitimacy of governments in the eyes of the people.”

Macron’s desire to head for the exits would present a significant challenge to the Biden administration’s approach to the region. So far, Biden has drawn from a familiar playbook: Relying on the French as the center of gravity in the region and supporting the simmering counterterrorism campaigns with intelligence, logistics, and a limited footprint of U.S. combat troops. While the terrorist threat in the Sahel is a front-line threat for the French, experts said, the United States has less concern that those groups are capable of hitting the homeland. 

“The message I kept getting is: This is a French problem, the French need to deal with this,” said Cameron Hudson, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former State Department official. “That was a message I got from across the interagency: The French have more skin in the game than we do.”

The current crisis in the Sahel has its roots in the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya, which was vigorously promoted by France and resulted in the overthrow of Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi. 

The ensuing chaos provided a boost to the region’s insurgents and Islamist extremists, particularly in Mali, where a coalition of Tuareg rebels launched an offensive against government forces in northern Mali, seizing around two-thirds of the country’s territory and triggering a military coup by soldiers enraged by what they viewed as the lack of government support for the fight. A coalition of Islamist extremists, including a group allied with al Qaeda, hijacked the Tuareg rebellion, imposed their rule over the country’s north, and threatened to move toward the capital, Bamako.

In January 2013, the French military launched an operation to retake control of the north and crush the extremist movement. It was replaced the following year by Operation Barkhane, which was tasked with fighting Islamist extremists throughout the Sahel. The United States provided the French with intelligence and some logistical support.

Ever since, the French have sought to broaden European and international support for their counterterrorism mission in the Sahel. Paris helped stand up the G5, a French-trained regional counterterrorism force composed of troops from five former French colonies: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The African force—which is tasked with conducting cross-border counterterrorism operations—has long been vital to France’s long-term plans to reduce its military footprint in the region. But the force has proved incapable of sustaining regional operations on its own, and it lacks the funding and logistical infrastructure to continue its operations without French support. 

But the French officials see Macron’s desire to head for the exits as a sign that the Barkhane mission will now split in two. There will be a smaller footprint and a more narrowly targeted counterterrorism mission, and efforts to advise and assist the nascent Malian forces, with Western forces providing a leg up with intelligence and providing pointers in the field. 

But there’s been a sense of frustration in Paris, dating back before the military coup in May, about the lack of political progress in the war-torn country and the failure by Bamako to take ownership of the terrorism fight as French forces have tired of the direct-action mission and moved toward the advise-and-assist style mission popularized by Western forces in Iraq and Syria. France temporarily suspended cooperation with Malian forces earlier this month in response to the coup, in an effort to try to get the political transition back on track. Yet there’s fear that an international presence gives little incentive for Bamako to undertake reforms if the Barkhane mission continues to do the work of rooting out terrorists for the fledgling government. 

France, meanwhile, has pressed, with limited success, to mandate MINUSMA provide support for the G5’s counterterrorism operations. In 2017, the Security Council approved a French-backed plan to supply the African forces with food and fuel, and to medevac injured troops to safety, but only when they entered Malian territory. 

Acknowledging the limitations of the African mission, the French organized a new European task force, known as Takuba, which was established last year to train and advise African counterterrorism forces. Takuba is expected to play a more prominent role in the fight against terrorism after the French drawdown.

Speaking at a press conference last week, Macron said he invited all of France’s partners to engage in the force, adding that if the United States would be ready to add special forces, it is “welcome” to do so, a sign that observers saw as an open door to Pentagon participation in the mission. Sweden has contributed a helicopter-led rapid response unit to Takuba, and both Italy and Denmark are also expected to make significant contributions. But Germany has declined to participate in the operation, on the grounds that its constitution prohibits involvement in foreign military operations.

“The ambition was to Europeanize the effort but France has so far mostly been able to mobilize untraditional allies, including the Czechs, Estonia, Sweden, and the backbone of this task force of special forces remains French,” said Arthur Boutellis, a senior advisor at the International Peace Institute. “The recent announcement of the end of Operation Barkhane may raise new concerns over the level of support, hence France is trying to get the Americans more involved.”

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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