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When strategic narratives lead to political blindness: towards a mythical explanation for European strategic failure in Mali

Victor Bouemar

Since 2013, Europeans have been engaged in Mali through different frameworks and in varying degrees, from counterterrorism and peacekeeping operations to capacity-building missions. Yet after almost a decade of combating jihadists and building up Malian armed forces, results are bleak. Why has European strategy in the Sahel failed? Victor Bouemar argues that the strong counterterrorism focus of European intervention in Mali can best be explained through the concepts of political myth, strategic narrative, and their combination in strategic culture.

On 31 January 2022, the Malian junta announced the expulsion of the French ambassador, only a few days after having forced Denmark to withdraw its troops from the French-led counterterrorist Task Force Takuba, and this during the ongoing deployment of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group. This latest episode is only one expression of the severe deterioration of the relations between Mali and European countries since the two recent military coups. The overt hostility of Malian military rulers towards France and the European Union indisputably calls into question European strategy in Mali and the Sahel.

From insurgency to jihad

War erupted in 2012 when Tuareg separatists joined forces with jihadists to launch a large-scale rebellion in the northern part of the country to gain independence for the Azawad region. Following the debacle of the Malian army and a military coup, Mali sought the assistance of France to counter the insurgency. When the Tuareg separatists of the MNLA were side-lined by the jihadists of AQIM[1], Ansar ed-Dine[2] and the MUJAO[3], France launched operation Serval in the fear that Mali would become a giant training camp for preparing terrorist attacks in Europe.

After the success of Serval, France reconfigured its initial counterinsurgency operation into a counterterrorist one, operation Barkhane. The underlying idea was to contain jihadists while the coercive capacities of the Malian state were being developed, until Malian forces were ready to relieve the French and their African allies. This strategy created a division of labour with the United Nations in charge of peacekeeping tasks with the MINUSMA[4], the European Union building up Malian state capacities with EUTM Mali[5] and EUCAP Sahel Mali[6], and France conducting the combat missions against jihadists with Barkhane.

Limitations of the counterterrorism lens

Counterterrorism remained the cornerstone which sustained all other initiatives. The counterterrorist lens went so far as to exclude all jihadist groups from the Algiers Peace Accord of 2015, thus severely limiting its impact. It most dramatically led to a situation where the actual grievances of the population, such as the absence of justice, ethnic exclusion, land disputes, or oppressive behaviours of the central state, came to be completely overlooked.

But why has the counterterrorist approach been so persistent while there has been consistent and repeated feedback that its effects are most likely counterproductive? While some have advanced rationalist arguments, by referring to the interests of the different parties, to account for this paradox, I believe that it is worth investigating the concepts of myths and narratives to find more satisfying explanations.

The power of myths and narratives

Myths immediately evoke ancient gods and heroes. Traditionally understood as primitive explanations of the inexplicable, myths provide a story about the genesis of the world. Hence, historical moments such as the Peace of Westphalia, the Enlightenment, or the Second World War, are frequently mythologised to narrate (and thereby explain) the foundations of our current world order. In modern times, the concept of myths has provided scholars with a powerful instrument to adopt a different approach towards policy analysis. The tradition of interpretive policy analysis understands myths as different sorts of narratives which shape the identity of individuals and influence their perception of reality. Myths make an unquestionable claim on truth, which has the power to divert individuals from certain irreconcilable issues.

A narrative approach helps us understand how myths participate in constructing social problems, while at the same time providing solutions for these problems. The narrative of the ‘War on Terror’ has indeed been extremely powerful in mobilising Western nations and finding a sense of purpose after the ‘End of History’ moment of the 1990s. With regard to Mali, it is only when France could justify military intervention by combating terrorists that it successfully mobilised other nations.

Counterterrorism as a strategic narrative?

But the concept of myth is broad, and, similarly to culture, it has the potential to explain everything and nothing at the same time. Therefore, the relationship between a myth and individuals or groups must be specified. Here, distinguishing between political myths and strategic narratives is particularly useful. While the former is a social construct with structuring power of undetermined origins, the latter is instrumentally crafted by specific agents to achieve some goal or goals. The efficacy of a strategic narrative lies in its ability to resonate with an already existing political myth.

Thus, could it be that the strong counterterrorism focus of European action in Mali is the result of strategic narratives on the ‘War on Terror’ successfully ‘working on’ a certain political myth? And that these narratives are designed to achieve objectives unrelated to the Sahel region? European initiatives in Mali are often praised for fostering cooperation between Europeans on defence and security issues. Task Force Takuba has in fact been designed to develop a shared European strategic culture.

Myths, strategic narratives, and strategic culture: a research agenda

The case of Mali is particularly interesting for the application of a research program inspired by interpretive policy analysis. The counterterrorism approach to conflict resolution in Mali has generated sufficient literature and policy feedback to question its relevance. But the persistence of a strategy focused on combating jihadists suggests that certain ideas have been powerful enough to constrain the choices of policymakers. Strategic narratives enable the conceptualisation of the process where ideas become so pervasive that they considerably restrict the range of possible policy options.

For instance, a strategic narrative based on the ‘War on Terror’ might be especially influential among an audience which shares the political myth of the ‘Liberal Peace’, and therefore is more inclined to separate the (civilised) liberal Self from the (uncivilised) illiberal Other. This example illustrates the relevance of these two concepts for future research: the idea that strategic narratives work on political myths conceptualises the process through which a certain culture emerges, changes, or endures. Myths and narratives help to bring back cultural explanations of political phenomena, while offering possibilities to articulate them with rationalist ones. In the field of international relations, applying them to the concept of strategic culture carries the promise of an innovative and productive research agenda.

[1] Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

[2] The defenders of the religion

[3] Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest

[4] Mission multidimensionnelle Intégrée des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation au Mali

[5] European Training Mission in Mali

[6] EU Capacity Building Mission in Mali