World news

from the triumphal welcome to the departure of the troops

► Has France made strategic errors?

In February 2013, François Hollande was acclaimed by a jubilant crowd in Timbuktu and Bamako where he declared, moved, to live “the most important day of (her) political life “. In a few weeks, the French troops manage to drive out the jihadist groups from the main localities in northern Mali, destroying their sanctuary in the heart of the Ifoghas massif. Brilliant, the success of Operation Serval will however be short-lived. Very quickly, Paris takes the measure of what a high-ranking officer calls “mercury effect” : Far from being crushed, the jihadist nebula trickles inside Mali, as well as in neighboring countries.

In the summer of 2014, Serval turned into Operation Barkhane: far from withdrawing its troops, Paris had the ambition to extend the fight to five countries. With the same objective: to create a “security environment” allowing the local administration to redeploy and agencies and NGOs to ensure the development of deprived areas.

But the trap is closing in on the former colonial power: the more Barkhane hits the jihadist movements, the stronger they are and the more insecurity spreads in Mali, Burkina Faso and even Niger. And the more the incomprehension of the local populations grows. Paris then sought to bounce back by promoting the rise of local armies to the front line, united within the “G5 Sahel”, and by bringing its military efforts to the most sensitive area of ​​the region, on the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso and from Nigeria. But the exponential deterioration of the situation on the ground is taking France by storm.

► What are the responsibilities of the Sahelian regimes?

Mali failed to exploit the victory of French forces against the jihadists in 2013: Bamako is unable to restore administration in the liberated areas, fueling protest and rejection of central power. With Mali, most regimes in the region lock themselves in denial of reality, minimizing the threat posed by these groups and the reasons for their success. They refuse to change the way they operate, preferring the short term to the long term, remaining entangled in the dynamics of corruption, clientelism and distrust of their own armies.

Chronic “poor governance” leads to ruptures with civil societies and encourages recruitment on the side of jihadists. The armies sent to the front without great means end up revolting against the politicians: the soldiers carry out two coups d’etat in Mali and Burkina Faso, ruining the constitutional and democratic order.

Another major error, the central powers cover up the abuses committed by their armed forces and the self-defense militias, in particular against the Fulani minority. This impunity fosters identity tensions and jihadist recruitment on community bases. This cocktail of corruption, denial and abuse is reminiscent of the precedents of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia, the Republic of Vietnam in the first half of the 1970s, or the Afghan regime against the Taliban in the years 2000-2010. Regimes that ended up collapsing like houses of cards.

► How to explain the effectiveness of jihadist groups?

Unable to resist Operation Serval, they spread throughout the Sahel, primarily in Algeria and Libya where the main groups have rear bases. They also find in Burkina Faso, during the time of Blaise Compaoré (chased from power in 2014), refuge areas. Once their forces have been reorganized, these highly mobile groups go back on the offensive in areas neglected by States, recruiting young people for whom they represent the only possibility of a better life. If the theological-political project of these armed groups is increasingly attractive in a very degraded environment, their success is also explained by the insurrectional dimension of their mobilization against an executive perceived as indifferent and unjust.

The abuses committed by government forces and the blunders attributed to the French army favor the enlistment of young people, as Rémi Carayol shows in his book The Sahelian Mirage (1). More anchored in the social fabric than government forces and the French army, they can simultaneously terrify, seduce and count on the support of defenseless local populations. Finally, these groups benefit from support in the mysteries of the regional and central powers but also in the sub-region such as in Algeria, a country of refuge for the leader of the Support Group for Islam and Muslims, Iyad Ag Ghali. Added to this, on the international level, are the suspicions of indirect support hanging over certain Gulf countries.

► What weight did the information war play?

The French presence is gradually the target of an offensive in the information field. Lies, intimidation, intoxication operations on social networks, in the “alternative” media taken up by fake accounts, but also by influencers, some of whom are paid by Moscow and to which are added real accounts of people whose representation of the world is supported by these accusations.

At the heart of this hostile movement, the war machine created by Evgueni Prigojine, a businessman close to the Kremlin: a myriad of companies that attack the enemies designated by Moscow. Among these companies, the Patriot Media Group, a structure of eleven media, one of which, the Russian federal press agency Ria Fan, is especially oriented towards Africa. At the same time, the mercenary company Wagner is setting up in the French “backyard”: in the Central African Republic from 2018, in Mali from 2021, then in Burkina Faso, before targeting Niger.

But the success of this anti-French propaganda in Africa is also linked to the increasingly negative perception of France and Operation Barkhane by public opinion. To ward off this disinformation enterprise, Paris has launched several counterfires, such as the creation of a cell dedicated to “informational warfare » within the French army. Above all, the Élysée has opted for the greatest discretion about its commitment to the Sahel. The 3,000 French soldiers currently deployed in this region are, in a way, invisible as part of a now nameless operation (since the official end of Barkhane in the summer of 2022). Probably so as not to be stigmatized and targeted by Russian trolls.


Serval-Barkhane in a few dates

April 6, 2012. The Tuareg independence movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), declares independence for northern Mali. He joined forces with Islamist groups who quickly took control of the region.

January 11, 2013. Beginning of the French military intervention, Operation Serval.

July 13, 2014. Official end of Operation Serval, replaced on August 1 by Operation Barkhane.

2015. The forces of jihadist groups are gaining ground in Niger and are now striking Burkina Faso, long spared from terrorist attacks.

January 13, 2020. At the Pau Summit, France decided to concentrate its efforts on the “three-border zone”between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

August 18, 2020. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, elected in 2013, is overthrown by a putsch. Relations between Paris and Bamako are deteriorating.

August 15, 2022. Departure of the last French soldiers from Mali.


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