For eight years, France has been fighting jihadists in the Western Sahel. The first deployments were in Mali. Others followed, across a swathe of arid land south of the Sahara, from Mauritania’s Atlantic coast to eastern Chad, a landscape of sand and igneous rock eight times the size of France. The French expeditionary corps (5200 troops on last year’s count) has won every battle it’s fought, but it has lost the war. A good dozen jihadist organisations – some pledging allegiance to al-Qaida, others to Islamic State – now control much of central and northern Mali, as well as the so-called tri-border area: Mali’s frontiers with Burkina Faso and Niger. In 2013, 272 violent incidents were recorded across the three countries, the great majority in Mali. Last year the total was 2130, only half of them in Mali. France’s military solution has failed. ‘In West Africa, jihadist movements are spreading like the desert, from north to south,’ the International Crisis Group warned in December 2019. It predicted a growing ‘risk of jihadist contagion’ that could spread to West Africa’s more fertile, prosperous coastal states, including Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, the regional powerhouses.
In February, Emmanuel Macron said he had twice considered ‘a massive troop withdrawal’: first after thirteen French soldiers died in a helicopter collision in November 2019 (French losses in the Sahel now stand at 57) and again last August after weeks of anti-French protest in Mali’s capital, Bamako, resulted in a coup. But opening up a theatre of war is often easier than closing it down: like the US in Afghanistan, France is groping for an exit from a war of its own making. Instead of pulling out, Macron last year announced a ‘surge’ – six hundred additional troops – as well as a focus on the tri-border area, in an attempt to stop jihadist groups reaching the coast. He is buying time in the hope of extricating France discreetly, but he also wants to alleviate its burden by means of an ‘internationalisation’ of its counterterrorism operation.
At a recent summit with leaders of the G5-Sahel states – Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – the main item on the agenda was the contribution those countries could make. Macron, the only head of state not to attend in person, set out a three-step plan. First, France will ‘concentrate exclusively on the fight against terrorism’. This means ‘mowing the grass’, in US counter-terrorism jargon: thinning out jihadist networks without necessarily seeking to destroy them altogether. Second, a body of European soldiers known as the Takuba Task Force will see its numbers increased. It currently numbers six hundred; two thousand additional French troops are due to join by the end of the year. (Implicit here is that unlike the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali or EU military missions in the wider region, Takuba – the Tuareg word for ‘sword’ – will be under French command, independent of any international mandate.) Finally, about five hundred French military instructors and advisers will be embedded in G5-Sahel armies. All this is meant to enable the withdrawal of half the current French contingent before the next French presidential election, in April 2022.
Ever since the Franco-British Convention of 1898 gave them a free hand in the region, France has had a plan grandiose for the Western Sahel, and we are at last witnessing the endgame. The central idea, spelled out in a report by the French ministry for colonial affairs in 1918, was ‘to rid the African centre of Muslim theocracies hostile to all civilisation and, with the action of a constabulary force, to secure free passage between the Mediterranean and tropical Africa’. By then, France had already fought for decades to pacify the desert lands connecting its possessions in North Africa and l’Afrique Occidentale Française, the federation of its West African colonies. The AOF was established in 1895, a year after the French occupied Timbuktu with their own version of the ‘camel corps’ invented by the British in Sudan.
France’s desert cavalry, the Compagnies sahariennes, was tasked with ‘purging the Sahara of bandits’, a generic term for marauders, rebels, thieves and religiously inspired insurgents. Many of the region’s nomads had embraced a harsh interpretation of the Quran in the second half of the 19th century under the influence of the Senussi Brotherhood, a Sufi order. Like the Wahhabists in Arabia, the Senussi were severe in matters of doctrine. They proscribed all interaction, including trade, with Christians and Jews, whose only role was to pay tribute. Those who disobeyed were fair game: the decapitation of ‘infidels’ was not uncommon. Eventually the ‘bandits’ and the Compagnies sahariennes achieved a modus vivendi, with the French taking punitive action only in response to raids that directly targeted their interests. Otherwise, nomadic communities were left to their own devices: no attempt was made to school their children, impede seasonal migration or turn the historic ‘keepers of the desert’ into colonial subjects. An element of racial collusion lay behind this pact. The Beidan – the Moorish word for ‘whites’, still widely used as a self-description by the nomadic peoples of the Western Sahel – saw only one difference between themselves and the French: religion.
This arrangement held up until the era of independence, when the Beidan feared that the departing coloniser would leave them at the mercy of sedentary majorities. On 30 May 1958, a number of dignitaries claiming to speak for Tuaregs and ‘Moors’ – people of Berber and Arab descent – living on the bend of the Niger River wrote an open letter to de Gaulle, addressing him as ‘Your Majesty the President’. They declared their ‘outright refusal’ to become part of ‘an autonomous or federalist system in Black Africa or North Africa … Our interests and aspirations would in no case be legitimately taken care of as long as we are part of a territory inevitably represented and governed by a black majority whose ethnicity, interests and aspirations are not the same as ours.’
The first of many Tuareg rebellions began in 1963, in the Adrar des Ifoghas, a mountainous area in north-east Mali near the border with Algeria. The most recent almost came to an end in the same place half a century later. In 2013, Tuareg rebels withdrew to this natural redoubt to escape the attentions of the French military. Around three thousand Tuareg fighters had returned from Libya a year earlier, having emptied Gaddafi’s armouries and crossed the Sahara with trucks, jeeps, ambulances, assault rifles, hand grenades, machine guns and rocket launchers. They were former members of a mercenary force, the Islamic Legion, set up by Gaddafi in the 1970s to further his pan-Arab and pan-Islamist ambitions: after his downfall they were no longer welcome in Libya. Back in Mali they proclaimed the independent state of Azawad, named for a fertile valley that Mali’s Tuaregs cross during their annual transhumance. But Azawad was a mirage. Tuaregs and ‘Moors’ account for less than 10 per cent of Mali’s population. Within months, their secessionist agenda was hijacked by Algerian Salafists who, defeated in their own country, had found refuge in the north of Mali and rebranded themselves as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Tuareg leaders concluded that to win over other communities, militant Islam was the best way forward.
Across the Western Sahel, the black banners of jihad are now emblems of victory. What the Nigerian academic Farooq Kperogi calls ‘theocratic populism’ holds sway among pastoralists who confront sedentary communities over grazing rights or access to wells for their herds, and among a younger generation who reject the ‘principle of seniority’ that bestows power, wealth and prestige on their elders. There are also tensions over access to fertile land, intensified by soil degradation and hyper-rapid demographic growth. Mali’s population, which stood at five million at independence in 1960, is now twenty million. According to the UN’s median projection, it will reach 45 million by 2050.
Even if we set aside the institutional limitations of the postcolonial state – inefficiency, corruption, lack of legitimacy – governments in the Sahel are no match for militant theocratic populism. Elected office-holders must strive for impartiality towards communities whose sense of national unity barely had time to develop before the new challenge of a politicised global ummah – the Muslim ‘community of believers’ – came along.
When he ordered the French army to intervene in Mali in 2013, did it cross François Hollande’s mind that his expeditionary force would be playing out a 21st-century version of the Compagnies sahariennes’ pursuit of bandits across the Western Sahel? Hollande was worried about the jihadist groups that had taken control in northern Mali and might push south towards Bamako. But would they ever have seized the capital with its 2.5 million inhabitants? It’s impossible to know, because the jihadist blitzkrieg was promptly reversed when the French embarked on a series of lightning offensives. Within weeks, they had been joined by Chadian troops seasoned in desert warfare, and the jihadists were on the run. French and Chadian contingents pressed north in pursuit, following their enemy into the Adrar des Ifoghas. American military personnel I spoke to at the time generously acknowledged the French success, and were impressed by the tactical leeway given to junior officers in the field. They couldn’t even imagine a military tradition in which, even after the arrival of wireless telegraphy in the early 1920s, messages dispatched by a superior to a commander of a desert outpost invariably began with the sentence: ‘I hope you haven’t been waiting for this order to take a decision.’
Hollande was ambivalent about sending in the troops. On the one hand, he stressed that France had ‘no other objective than the fight against terrorism’ – déjà vu for Western electorates. On the other, he explained that action was being taken ‘to support a friendly nation, Mali, and its population, which wishes to be free and live in a democracy’. French troops would ‘stay for as long as necessary’ and would only leave ‘when there is security in Mali, a legitimate government, an electoral process and no further terrorist threat’. Macron is now calling for better governance in the Western Sahel, but he clearly no longer sees this as France’s responsibility. The watchwords of his plan – ‘internationalisation’ and ‘Sahelisation’ – cater to the growing weariness of French public opinion. A poll conducted in January showed that 51 per cent of respondents no longer support the counterterrorism operation; in surveys conducted eight years earlier, 73 per cent backed the intervention. Hollande was popular in Mali too, at least to begin with. On a visit to Timbuktu and Bamako three weeks after the French military deployment, he was acclaimed by large crowds as a liberator, even a saviour.
In August 2014, heady after eighteen months of whirlwind success, France expanded its intervention to the entire Western Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad. A century had elapsed, colonialism had come and gone, but the marching orders for the French army were the same. The UN mission in Mali – already the UN’s third biggest and most dangerous peacekeeping mission with 12,500 blue helmets, 1700 police officers and 1500 civilian personnel – didn’t expand its area of operations to support the French initiative. But the Americans helped with logistics and provided intelligence. Last year they contributed $60 million to a counterterrorism operation whose latest annual cost to France was more than $1 billion. France’s European partners, by contrast, have resisted calls to share the burden, doubtful as to the terrorist threat or unwilling to follow France into its former colonies.
In search of support, Paris urged its partners in the region to build a ‘security and development alliance’. The G5-Sahel staged its first military joint operation – 750 West African soldiers assisted by 180 French military – in 2017. A year later they were unable to defend their own operational headquarters in northern Mali from a jihadist attack. The G5-Sahel is unlikely to become a fighting force to be reckoned with. Chad in particular is not a state with an army so much as a tribal army that has a state, and the armies of the other member states are ineffective.
Something remarkable happened on 1 February at a French air base near Orléans. After a meeting of French counterterrorism officials – with the minister of defence and the chief of defence staff in attendance – Bernard Emié, the head of DGSE (the French equivalent of MI6), joined the press conference, much to the surprise of the journalists present, and screened a video recording of a ‘strategic’ meeting of al-Qaida-affiliated leaders that had taken place somewhere in the Western Sahel a year earlier. The meeting had been chaired by France’s bête noire in the region, Iyad ag-Ghali, a Tuareg secessionist and theocratic populist – and, according to the US, ‘designated global terrorist’ – who operates mostly in Mali. Emié claimed that the video recording revealed plans for terrorist attacks ‘in the region and in Europe’. He also maintained that the regional al-Qaida alliance had already infiltrated Côte d’Ivoire and Benin as part of ‘their plan to expand into the Gulf of Guinea’.
Even if the terrorist threat to Europe from the Sahel warrants a form of ‘forward defence’, it’s far from clear whether troop deployments are the best way. In desert states there is rarely an identifiable army against which battles can be fought. The IS caliphate is the most recent exception, and its brief success – no less than its defeat – was regarded as an invitation for terrorist actions in Europe. It isn’t clear why Western intelligence agencies can’t rely on their traditional tactics of infiltrating clandestine networks and carrying out targeted assassinations. If France chooses to reduce its military footprint in the Western Sahel, as Macron envisages, it would not be relinquishing its ability to prevent future terrorist attacks on European soil.
So why, in the absence of an imminent national threat, did France decide to send its soldiers to war in Africa? Was it another ‘extraordinary experiment in philanthropic imperialism’, as Alex de Waal said of the US-led operation in Somalia in the early 1990s? Quite possibly. In Mali, to put it candidly, there was nothing for the taking. But philanthropic imperialism, with casualties to show for it, is hardly popular in France: there is always the suspicion that la Françafrique is busy digging up hidden gold in its African backyard. In Mali, too, the brief moment of adulation turned into lasting execration – especially in Bamako – as the French prolonged their stay. France fought in Mali, but it was unable to fight on behalf of Mali, for Malians. French soldiers were sent to snuff out jihadism but they found ex-slaves and former masters, young rebels and gerontocrats, smugglers of cigarettes and petrol, vast communities of the unemployed. The list is long. That some of them, torn between grievances and greed, were also terrorists is no surprise, but the French couldn’t tell them apart.
Macron’s declared exit strategy is a fog of words, but it’s clear at least that France wants to get out. More infighting between rival jihadist factions will follow and the near future will be messy if not chaotic. But France’s ‘grand plan’ for the Western Sahel will be put to rest. After the French withdraw, the region will devise its own plans grandioses. One possibility is the advent of various forms of Islamic governance, from the more or less democratic rule that exists in Morocco and Turkey to the religious dictatorships of Iran and Saudi Arabia. If this sounds bleak, it’s simply that the Western Sahel has run out of options. Unaddressed challenges – development, democracy, environmental degradation, population growth – have become insoluble problems. They can only get worse in a region threatened by the ravages of global warming, whose population will double within the next 25 years, to an estimated 165 million. Whether we think of it as jihadism or, as the French once did, mere banditry, insurrection in the Western Sahel is most of all an attempt to bring about a habitable future. In the eyes of a growing number of people in the region, very few of them terrorists, the West has ceased to hold out that promise.