In Mali, Macron’s Afghanistan

Foreign Affairs

Mali reminds the West that it is important to carefully choose our anti-terrorism fights.

President Emmanuel Macron pays his respects in front of the flag-draped coffins of thirteen French soldiers killed in Mali in late 2019. (Patrick Aventurier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The withdrawal of French troops from Mali this month has completed a process similar to that in Afghanistan for President Macron. Macron cut France’s losses after nine years–better than 20–throwing in the towel on nation-building and counter-terrorism cooperation with the hopelessly corrupt Malian government.

Far off the radar for most Americans, Mali has struggled for a decade against a determined and bloody jihadist insurgency. People of Mali, a predominantly Muslim country are split into many ethnic groups. They have been divided by a military junta which steals international aid funds to fund its own agenda.

France has pulled out and announced that it will maintain military forces in Sahel neighboring countries like Niger to fight terrorists in Mali. It would probably have been more realistic from the beginning.

In response to Paris cutting aid, the junta in the capital city, Bamako, predictably has already denounced French drone strikes against terrorists as a violation of Malian sovereignty and unacceptable “neocolonialism.” In the war of words, Macron has repeatedly condemned the junta, asserting that the Malian government has “no legitimacy.” It brings back memories of President Karzai arguing with Washington about what the United States owed his tottering government in Kabul.

Malie Mae teaches us again, just like the painful lesson from Afghanistan that counter-terrorism is a matter of careful selection. Some countries lack the ability to accept foreign training or assistance to make them viable security partners.

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This is especially true since these partnerships rapidly expand to a bigger mission than simply defeating the common enemy on the ground. The typical foreign assistance script for the US and Europe is to rebuild the country. This involves sending NGO workers and aid workers in to help build new institutions. They also try to train corrupt security forces so that they respect human rights. Finally, the strategy tries to imbue Western values on the traditional community, like religious tolerance and equal treatment of women.

Despite their merit, these initiatives often go against deeply-rooted local traditions and could take many decades for to become a reality. All these Western efforts to rebuild society take place in the midst of a brutal insurgency. This leaves counterterrorism as a single activity in an enormous nation-building effort. It is regrettable that the Bush White House was unable to bring Western values into Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban.

The French withdrawal from Mali shouldn’t be taken as a signal that Washington is ready to assume more responsibility for the events there. This country, despite its tragic history, does not fall within the United States’ national interest. We have witnessed the United States commit the same mistake before by following the French to one of their colonies.

Malian dictatorship is currently in effect, so Washington is keeping it away. Washington will be pushing for greater presence in the Sahel when a token democracy is established. This takes into consideration the French-Malian bitterness. Even now, members of Congress have written the White House urging more U.S. involvement in West Africa, particularly Mali, asserting: “The global community, with leadership from the United States, needs a new approach [in the region] that incorporates more holistic, long-term objectives centered around governance and institution building.”

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The situation has been complicated by the Bamako junta’s decision, in late 2021, to invite in the Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries tied to the Kremlin, to help reinforce the fledgling dictatorship and battle the jihadists. Already, the Wagner Group was accused of atrocities committed against Malian citizens. Biden’s administration used the Russian presence as a pretext to prepare the U.S. Africa Command in preparation for an increased military presence in Mali. AFRICOM has already suggested to the junta’s leadership that if the country could get back on the democratic path, U.S. military assistance would be available.

Even without foolishly taking on a wider security mission in Mali, the United States has already committed more than $690 million for FY 2016-20 to USAID programs there. This level of civil aid is sufficient. If there’s a future security commitment, and the junta has gone, fighting should go on under French command, with the assistance of the U.N. peacekeeping force, MINUSMA.

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Recently, Secretary of State Blinken laid out the Biden administration’s “Sub-Saharan African Strategy” indicating the U.S. would focus on the “Coastal West African countries of Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo.” Blinken was indicating, by obvious omission, that the U.S. would only provide conventional development aid to the more stable governments in that region and perhaps–wisely–not provide any new military assistance in Mali. Let’s pray that the Biden administration is able to resist another Russian proxy war.

The crucial test will be if democracy is restored to Mali. With the blessings of France and the European Union, a new government will be elected in Bamako. It is almost certain that the White House will petition for an increased AFRICOM position. Macron has hinted about it himself. Perhaps by then the 118th Congress will be in place to make sure that such an overreaching commitment does not get funded.

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Washington must resist the temptation of a counterproductive great power game. Conservatives in a new Congress should act to limit AFRICOM. It doesn’t matter if the Wagner Group is present or the consternation over Mali losing its vast mineral resources. Even if radical jihadists take power in Bamako, this principle will still hold true. We don’t want to be weak in our relations with the enemy or show antipathy towards this country. We recognize the challenges we face, particularly after Afghanistan. Because this faraway conflict is not directly in the U.S. national interest, we should resist now Washington’s oft-demonstrated hubris that could launch us into a quagmire in which we have neither the finesse nor the staying power to achieve a successful outcome.

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