Over the past seven years, France’s Barkhane counterinsurgency operation in the Sahel has weathered terrorist attacks, flagging political support from its African allies, and growing popular protests against the ongoing presence of Paris, the region’s former colonial power. Now, it faces the coup in Mali.
August’s power grab by a group of army colonels — Mali’s fourth coup since independence — is again posing questions about whether and for how long French boots should remain in an increasingly shifting and dangerous terrain.
That debate ratcheted up a notch this week, following the deaths of two French soldiers in northern Mali, bringing to 45 the number of French fatalities in the region over the past seven years.
“After the coup in Mali, doubts on the Barkhane operation,” France’s Le Figaro newspaper headlined this week, while some leftist lawmakers have called for a parliamentary debate about the future of France’s 5,000-plus strong regional force.
Yet along with the questions about France’s future in the region, some analysts see potential opportunities from the coup which ousted a government long accused of corruption and mismanagement — even as others fear deepening unrest.
For its part, France’s official answer remains the same.
“There is no question of letting down the guard,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French radio hours after news of the soldiers’ deaths. “We are making progress in Mali, where we are fighting to ensure our security and that of other countries.”
Talks on next steps
The debate comes as Mali’s new military rulers hold local and international talks about the country’s next steps. The 15-nation Economic Commission of West African States, or ECOWAS, has set a 12-month limit for new elections and a September 15th deadline for the appointment of an interim president and prime minister.
There are also reportedly rocky talks between the self-styled National Committee for the Salvation of the People, or CNSP junta, and the civilian coalition whose massive protests helped topple the government of former President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita.
Within this changing political landscape, France and other Western countries involved in regional counterinsurgency operations have offered mixed responses.
Even as the European Union and Washington announced the suspension of some military missions in Mali following the coup, French President Emmanuel Macron announced in late August the Barkhane peacekeeping force “would continue.”
“They’re still pushing for a quick [political] transition,” said Andrew Lebovich, Sahel expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations policy institute, of Paris’ response to the junta.
Still, he said, France’s tone toward the coup’s leaders has softened after it became clear Keita would not be returning to power.
Helping to ease relations, Mali’s coup leaders have said they would respect the country’s previous military engagements, which include partnering with other so-called G-5 Sahel member states and France in fighting the long-running Islamist insurgency in northern Mali and neighboring countries.
When they met with France’s ambassador to Mali in August, analyst Lebovich noted, Barkhane’s commander was also present.
“There was a clear message being sent,” he added, “that from their perspective, nothing changed with Barkhane.”
And for now, the military appears to have the support of at least a slice of the Malian population, which staged weeks of anti-government protests leading up to the coup.
“The soldiers, the soldiers,” some chanted at a Bamako rally on Monday.
“In theory it’s an opportunity,” Lebovich said of the junta, who he noted moved swiftly to show “they wanted to play a role in pushing anti-corruption measures and good governance” — reforms long, if quietly, demanded by international donors.
Whether Mali’s new rulers carry them out remains unclear. Also unclear, for some, is France’s future relationship with them.
Coup leader Colonel Assimi Goita, 37, received training in the United States and Germany — but not in France, France's Les Echos newspaper noted. Indeed, only one of the coup's senior officers spent time in the country, it said, adding French military officials initially didn’t seem to know who they were.
“We knew the situation remained unstable, but the five officers who led the coup took us by surprise,” it reported a French defense official as saying.
Either way, Barkhane’s supporters argue the force remains key in fighting the Sahel insurgency. Mali’s own 13,000-strong army is underpaid and underequipped, while some G-5 alliance forces have been accused of human rights abuses.
For its part, Paris has described a recent string of tactical successes, including the June killing of a senior al-Qaida leader, Adbemalek Droukdel.
“I think today, Barkhane is vital for Mali,” Nicolas Normand, a former French ambassador to Mali, told France’s Marianne magazine in a recent interview. “If it’s withdrawn, there will be chaos and towns will fall.”
But, he added, while “Barkhane is an insurance of Mali’s survival, it cannot stay forever.”
French opposition parties have expressed their own doubts about the status quo.
A number of analysts are also skeptical about Barkhane's effectiveness. Some point to a tangle of sometimes conflicting French and other European military missions in the region, and to protests in Mali and elsewhere against foreign involvement.
“The French say they’re making headway,” analyst Lebovich said. “Most outside specialists look at this and say, ‘Yes, there’s some improvement, but in general the overall security situation is not that much better.’ ”