French Soldiers Quit Mali After 9 Years, Billions Spent and Many Lives Lost

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It began with fanfare and friendship: Arriving in the West African nation of Mali in 2013, French troops were greeted as heroes liberating Malians from an existential jihadist threat.

But it ended quietly on Monday afternoon, the last few French units rolling over the border into neighboring Niger, absent a cordial farewell from their Malian partners, with whom France has had a major falling-out, and their mission far from accomplished.

The last unit of the French military mission, Operation Barkhane, crossed the border at 1 p.m., the military said in a statement, adding that the mission was undergoing a “deep transformation” but would “continue to fight terrorism” in the region.

French troops have been fighting Islamists in Mali for nearly a decade. Billions of euros have been spent. Thousands of civilians have died, as well as thousands of Malian soldiers and 59 French ones. But far from being stopped, the insurgency has billowed out from its northern beginnings across the country’s center and to its neighbors.

“The situation is worse than in 2013,” said Alpha Alhadi Koina, a Bamako-based geopolitical analyst at the research institute Think Peace Sahel. “The cancer has spread through Mali.”

Despite France’s regular announcements of jihadist leaders it has killed, armed Islamist groups continue to attract young men to their ranks, often finding fertile recruitment ground among marginalized communities with grievances against the state.

In the wider Sahel region, the vast strip south of the Sahara, more than 2.5 million people have been displaced in the last decade, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Just in the first six months of this year, more than 2,000 civilians have been killed, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit.

In 2020, Malians’ anger at their own government for failing to stop the violence bubbled over, and the country experienced some of its biggest demonstrations in years. At the height of the protests, Malian soldiers staged a coup d’état, arresting the president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, and forcing him to resign.

Since taking power, the military junta has enjoyed a wave of popularity and the French, seen as complicit with Mr. Keïta’s administration, have fallen further into disfavor.

France made some key mistakes, said Gen. Didier Castres, a former deputy chief of staff for operations in the early years of Operation Barkhane and its predecessor, Operation Serval. Among them, he said, was a patronizing approach that eventually irked the Malian authorities and the country’s population.

“We acted like a big brother who would turn to his little brother and tell him what to do and not do,” said Général Castres, who is now retired. “We’ve been the know-it-all trying to apply templates that weren’t suited to them.”

Another mistake, he said, was trying to resolve a multifaceted crisis primarily through military means.

But Mali still appears to be pursuing this strategy, hiring Russian mercenaries from a shadowy outfit known as the Wagner Group, which is backed by the Kremlin, according to officials and diplomats. In March, Malian soldiers and their Russian allies executed hundreds of men in Moura, in central Mali, a recent New York Times investigation found.

The increasingly complex crisis in Mali, with its blurred lines between who is considered a rebel, a jihadist or just an ordinary villager, “isn’t a war that Wagner can win,” said Konimba Sidibé, a former minister in Mr. Keïta’s government.

In the early days of the French intervention, it was largely seen as a great success. “Mali isn’t a caliphate, and the probability that it could have become one in 2013 was quite strong,” Général Castres said. He argued that France and European allies had also helped Mali strengthen its military capacities.

French troops had far better equipment and training than their Malian counterparts, and could conduct difficult operations from the air as well as the ground, where elite units in air-conditioned armored vehicles combed the scrubby savanna for insurgents and their arms.

But the French soldiers often had little or no experience in any African country, a limited understanding of the complex dynamics at play, and no way of communicating with the Malians they were there to protect. They spent much of their time in heavily protected bases, and came to be seen by many as arrogant and ineffective.

France will now run its counterterrorism efforts in the region from neighboring Niger, as well as Chad, where the Barkhane Operation has been headquartered.

The French pullout from Mali also adds uncertainty to the future of the United Nations’ peacekeeping operation in the country. Last week, Germany, the biggest contributor to the mission, announced that it was ending its participation just three months after voting for its renewal.

The French announced their departure in February, and as they have closed their bases and wound down operations, attacks have continued to increase.

On Aug. 7, Islamist insurgents killed 42 Malian soldiers in an attack 70 miles south of the French base in the ancient city of Gao. Just across the border with Burkina Faso, 15 Burkinabe soldiers were killed days later. A former government minister, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said that there were jihadist sleeper cells in the capital, Bamako, waiting for the right opportunity to strike. Such an opportunity may be presented by the departure of the French, he said.

Some of France’s unpopularity in Mali — as well as in several other African countries — stems from its past as a colonial power, and from the post-independence meddling in African politics by its presidents, a system known as Françafrique, largely motivated by French economic interests.

Though French officials speak of Françafrique as a thing of the past, in Mali the system is often seen as alive and well, and opposition to it has become a political rallying cry. Thus, when Mali expelled France’s ambassador last year, many Malians welcomed the move. He has not been replaced.

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