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Radical Defense Shifts

Max Boele

In February 2022, French president Emmanuel Macron announced the complete withdrawal of French forces from Mali after almost ten years of French commitment to security in the region. During the French intervention, operations Serval and Barkhane consecutively, the stability in Mali has not improved, indeed arguably deteriorated, which has led to two consecutive state coups in 2020 and 2021. How was it possible that the Malian interim government, the very government backed economically, politically and militarily by the French government (and other allies), could collapse in an instant?

In counterinsurgency (COIN), the main objective is to defeat the insurgency and garner support for the host nation’s state apparatus to ensure long-term stability in the region. However, the consecutive coups in Mali prove that this goal of long-term stability had not been achieved. To understand this problem, I decided to investigate the interlinking dynamic between the concepts of COIN and legitimacy.

To understand the failed French attempt to stabilize Mali, I argue that we need to look more closely at the effect of French counterinsurgency on the perception of state legitimacy by Malian citizens. This becomes particularly visible when we zoom in on the Mopti region in Central Mali. The Mopti region is home to the fertile Niger Delta which is used by two distinct ethnic communities: the Fulani pastoralists and Dogon sedentary farmers. Due to climate change and incursions by Jihadist extremists, tensions between the Fulani and Dogon were rapidly rising before the French intervention.

Fig. 1. Mopti region depicted in Mali

The degradation of local security and stability can be indirectly and in specific cases even directly linked to the presence of French counterinsurgents in the Mopti region. French counterinsurgents were tasked with bringing security to the Mopti region, thereby stabilizing the country under the leadership of the Malian central-state. However key blind spots in France’s knowledge of the intricacies between the Fulani and Dogon communities resulted in further destabilization of the Niger Delta.

The predominant focus of the French counterinsurgents centered on the military defeat of the insurgencies in Mali. In the Mopti-region French forces solely occupied themselves with the military defeat of the region’s major insurgency Katibat Macina. This led the French to turn a blind-eye to the grievances plaguing the countryside.

One of these grievances was the aforementioned ethnic/communal tension between Fulani pastoralists and Dogon sedentary farmers. As the French did not want to intervene in the communal disputes between the Fulani and Dogon, ethnic violence significantly increased. To make matters worse, the French employed the services of a Dogon militia, Dana Ambassagou, to fight against the insurgencies in the Mopti region. Dana Ambassagou, emboldened by French funds and support, increased their pressure and raids against Fulani communities. The inability of the Malian government to improve the situation and aid their struggling population in Central-Mali eventually caused a significant loss of Malian state legitimacy.

Fig. 2. Causal mechanism between French enemy-centric COIN and the loss of Malian state legitimacy

The French intervention in Mali can be placed in a long line of western counterinsurgency interventions that have failed to properly stabilize the host-nation. Although cases like Afghanistan, Mali and Iraq have played out in vastly different contexts, one constant has been: the inability of Western counterinsurgents to acquire a thorough understanding of the moving parts, motivations and drivers of the local populace in the intervention areas.

With the apparent danger climate change poses for developing countries across the world, terrorist groups and insurgencies will resurface at vulnerable sites across the globe. It is therefore a matter of time before the west sees itself committed to global counterinsurgency yet again. However, we are not ready for it. Western militaries and governments will need to specialize in counterinsurgency operations in a radically different way than they have in the past. Psychological, sociological, political and military knowledge must be combined into future counterinsurgency operations if complete misjudgments like France’s handling of the Fulani-Dogon cleavage is to be prevented in the future.

However, the importance of counterinsurgency operations, and the specialization it requires, may fall from the limelight with the current Western focus on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has showed NATO and the West that Russia still constitutes a severe threat for North-Atlantic stability. It has resulted in many calls by Western militaries to refocus efforts on preparing, training and focusing on conventional warfare. Although I applaud this realization, I want to stress that the West needs to update their COIN doctrines if cases like Mali are prevented in the future. The West should not stare itself blind against the threat of conventional warfare with Russia and so forget the looming threat of climate change and the wave of global destabilization that will coincide with it.