IN JANUARY 2013 French forces entered Mali to stop columns of separatists and jihadists from the north threatening Bamako, the capital. At first, their intervention, at the request of the Malian government, was a resounding success. Within weeks, northern towns such as Gao and Timbuktu were liberated. But what was supposed to be a brief operation turned into an uphill struggle. This week, after nine and a half years, the last remaining French soldiers were expelled from their country’s former colony. They leave behind a country increasingly overwhelmed by insurrection. The fight against the jihadists – who are loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – has only become bloodier (see map). And terrorists, once confined, have spread over large swathes of the Sahel.
After its first intervention, France had planned to train local armies to defeat the jihadists. But the regional forces did not prove strong enough for the Western forces to back down. Instead, in early 2020, France again increased its troop numbers in the region from 4,500 to 5,100. Around 15,000 UN blue helmets are also patrolling in Mali. Other European countries were drawn into the conflict, some of which sent trainers and commandos. In Mali and Burkina Faso, meanwhile, Western-trained local soldiers ousted elected governments in coups. Since they took power, the bloodshed has only gotten worse. Jihadist groups, which are taking advantage of local anger at the massacres of national armies, have only grown stronger.
The political mess precipitated the French exit. To add insult to injury, the Malian junta brought in Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group and expelled the French ambassador. In February of this year, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, had had enough. He announced the withdrawal of all troops from Mali. Some 1,000 troops will now be based in Niger. UN the blue helmets in Mali, more exposed than ever, will continue to fight.
The outlook for the region is bleak. The Sahel is now the hotspot of global terrorism, accounting for more than a third of all deaths from terrorism in 2021. In total, in Mali, nearly 2,700 civilians, soldiers and terrorists were killed in the first half of this year, or 40% more than overall. of 2021. Violence drives people from their homes (see graph).
Even France’s initial accomplishment may be threatened. Last month, jihadists struck Mali’s main military camp, just 15 km from Bamako. As in 2013, the capital is on edge. If the jihadists did attack, this time who might come to their aid is far from clear. ■