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Monday Morning Meeting on Withdrawal of French Troops from Mali: Implications and Challenges

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  • May 02, 2022
    Monday Morning Meeting
    Only by Invitation
    1000 hrs

    Event Report

    Ms. Sindhu Dinesh, Research Analyst, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, spoke on “Withdrawal of French Troops from Mali: Implications and Challenges” at the Monday Morning Meeting which was held on 02 May 2022 at 10 AM in the Auditorium. The session was moderated by Ms. Ruchita Beri, Senior Research Associate and Centre Coordinator, Africa, Latin America, Caribbean, and United Nations (ALACUN) Centre, MP-IDSA. The Director-General, MP-IDSA, Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy and all scholars of MP-IDSA were in attendance.

    Executive Summary

    In February 2022, France and its allies announced a coordinated withdrawal of their forces from Mali due to multiple obstructions by the military-led government. The talk shed light on the various dimensions, implications, and challenges of this move. The speaker highlighted the political, economic, and security developments in Mali, while also outlining the role of international actors in the region and underscoring the origins of French involvement in Mali, and discussing the ramifications of its withdrawal. The implications of the withdrawal on the G-5 Sahel countries, particularly as it pertained to security, were also underscored. India’s cooperation with France in Africa was discussed, along with France’s internal political and economic motivations behind the withdrawal.

    Detailed Report

    Ms. Ruchita Beri opened the session by underlining the growing unpopularity of the French presence in Francophone countries. With this observation, she invited Ms. Dinesh to make her presentation. Ms. Dinesh’s talk covered the implications and challenges of the withdrawal of French troops from Mali and its impact on the neighboring countries. She began her presentation by highlighting the political, economic, and security developments in Mali, including the coups, terrorist activities, prevailing poverty, and communal violence. She drew the audience’s attention to the fact that a rise in insurgent activity in northern Mali and the government’s inability to quell it led to a coup in 2012. Fearing an entrenchment of such activities in the central and southern regions, the interim government of Mali requested France’s aid in counter-terrorism, leading to Operation Serval and France’s arrival in the country in 2013. In 2020, another coup was led by Colonel Assimi Goïta against the government and in May 2021—in what the speaker said is referred to as ‘a coup within a coup’—Col. Goïta seized power and President Ndaw and Prime Minister Ouane were detained. This was the immediate political context of France’s decision to reduce its troops and later withdraw. Ms. Dinesh gave an economic overview, outlining Mali’s poverty and dependence on oil imports. She also noted that the growth of local terrorist outfits, communal violence between the herding and farming communities, drug trafficking, and other organised crimes have given rise to a complex security climate. She also provided a comprehensive overview of the activities of international bodies such as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (UN MINUSMA), European Union Capacity Building Mission in Mali, and European Union Training Mission in Mali.

    Talking about the inception and triggers of Operation Serval, Ms. Dinesh called attention to France’s moral obligation to look after its formal colonies. She also mentioned the success of Operation Serval in pushing back rebels to the northern part, giving rise to Operation Barkhane focused on counter-terrorism operations in the region, which although has eliminated the top leadership of several terrorist outfits and neutralised insurgents, has had limited success as the security threats in Mali have only increased. Ms. Dinesh pointed out that, after the May 2021 coup France refused to work with an unconstitutional government and President Macron announced a reduction of troops deployed to Mali. In February of 2022, France and its allies (part of Takuba Task Force) announced a coordinated withdrawal of their forces due to ‘multiple obstructions’ by the military-led government. In addition to this, a delay in elections and deterioration of bilateral ties also motivated France’s withdrawal. The speaker also shed light on the entry of new actors such as a Russian paramilitary organisation, the Wagner Group, into Mali. According to the government, the purpose of the Wagner Group is to train the armed forces of Mali but this reasoning is met with skepticism by the West. 

    Ms. Dinesh outlined the internal as well as the external implications of the withdrawal. According to her, the withdrawal has immediate security consequences in both of these realms. It will open Mali to a potential increase in terrorist activities and an escalation of its security crisis. However, with the exit of foreign presence, it remains to be seen whether the insurgent and jihadist groups would now engage in talks with the Malian authorities. It will also impact the operation of MINUSMA, which is heavily dependent on France’s air support, and is not mandated to deal with counter-terrorist operations. The withdrawal also accelerates the challenges to development and humanitarian efforts extended to the nation. In the external domain, France’s withdrawal, according to Ms. Dinesh, poses concerns about the rise of transnational terrorist attacks in the region and a very real threat to countries south of the Sahel which may witness a spillover of jihadist terrorism. At the same time, she also brings to the audience’s attention the fact that the troops have not withdrawn from the entire region but only Mali.

    Ms. Dinesh concluded by highlighting the possibility of the emergence of a security vacuum after France’s exit, along with Russian involvement in the region. She urged that the region is in need of a streamlined international effort, particularly a people and government-centric one, focused on the empowerment of the government apparatus and civil society.

    After the conclusion of Ms. Dinesh’s presentation, Ms. Beri opened the floor for questions and discussion. Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy complimented the speaker for a comprehensive presentation and also commented that care must be taken while assessing strategic partnerships with former colonial powers. Ms. Beri agreed with Ambassador Chinoy’s comments. Questions were raised on the extent of the success of the Russian Wagner Group in Mali. Underlining that Russia is Africa’s biggest arms supplier at the moment, Ms. Beri added that it is only natural that Russia would want to increase its presence in Mali. It remains to be seen as to how successful it is in dealing with the prevailing challenges.  

    Some questions from the audience focused on France’s economic ambitions behind its involvement in Mali. France’s internal politics and economy were also discussed in this context. Questions were also asked about the reaction of neighboring countries to France’s withdrawal. In response, Ms. Dinesh outlined the rise of concerns in the region regarding the containment of terrorism, a potential increase in defense spending, and escalation of anxieties regarding migration. India’s cooperation with France, as well as Mali, was also discussed. The session was concluded by Ms. Beri with an acknowledgment of the fact that France is only withdrawing from Mali and still continues operations in other countries in the region, along with a comment on India-Mali relations and the future of Mali.

    This report has been prepared by Ms. Halima Z. Ansari, Intern, MP-IDSA.

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