In Mali and elsewhere in northern and western Africa, al-Qaeda factions have been held back with the help of the French military. Fears are rising of a future pullout after watching the debacle in Kabul.
Iyad Ag Ghali did not wait for the fall of Kabul to celebrate the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. The jihadist leader of the West African branch of al-Qaeda (Group To Support Islam and Muslims, or GSIM) broke his long silence on Aug. 10, not having spoken since November 2019. In an audio message, he paid tribute to the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, for the withdrawal of the invading U.S. forces and their allies." He said the reversal "is the culmination of two decades of patience."
It is no coincidence that the Taliban's relentless offensive resonates to the far reaches of the Sahel region in northern and western Africa. When GSIM was created in 2017, Iyad Ag Ghali pledged allegiance not only to al-Qaeda, but also to Afghan Islamists. The Taliban and the Sahelian fighters are cut from the same cloth. "They share on-the-ground insurgency know-how, which is a byproduct of the al-Qaeda matrix," says Yvan Guichaoua, a researcher at the School of International Studies at the University of Kent in Brussels. "They also have the same ultimate goal: the application of Sharia law."
GSIM jihadists were not the only ones in the region keeping close tabs on Afghanistan's shift back into Taliban control. On Aug. 16, Malians were particularly disturbed to see images of Afghans clinging to military planes as they took off from the Kabul airport. For the past decade, Mali has been living under the threat of jihadists, sometimes those affiliated with al-Qaeda, other times with the Islamic State (ISIS). This is despite a French anti-terrorist intervention launched in January 2013 (first Operation "Serval" then Operation "Barkhane") at the request of the Malian government and under a mandate from the United Nations.
Even though public opinion toward French troops has become increasingly hostile, fears of a possible power vacuum remain. "Like the Americans who fled Afghanistan without asking for help, the French and the peacekeepers who are in Mali will one day run away and leave us face to face with the terrorist menace," said Cheick Oumar Konaré, a well-known Malian lawyer, in a televised debate broadcast on Africable on Aug. 15.
We should understand now what the consequences of a hasty, uncoordinated departure would be.
"Let's learn from this Afghan failure, while there is still time," says Tiébilé Dramé, who served as Malian foreign minister under Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, known as "IBK," who was overthrown by a coup d'état last year. "What lessons do the images from the Kabul airport teach us? For years, activists have regularly called for the departure of foreign troops, ironically also echoing the demands of warlords. But we must face reality. Foreign troops are doing a useful job. We should understand now what the consequences of a hasty, uncoordinated departure would be."
But this scenario is not on the agenda. Unlike the United States in Afghanistan, France is not about to disengage from the Sahel. Though President Emmanuel Macron announced the end of the Barkhane mission as an external operation on June 10, a "profound transformation" of the French military presence in the Sahel is set to take its place. The beginning of the withdrawal, at the end of 2021, will be gradual. While it will concern at least 40% of the troops (at a currently unknown date), between 2,500 and 3,000 soldiers will remain on the ground, operating within the framework of an international fight against terrorism.
However, the closure of French military bases in northern Mali (Timbuktu, Kidal and Tessalit) by 2022 is a concern. At the start of the war in 2012, Malian soldiers were forced to abandon some of their positions to a coalition of jihadist and rebel groups. Thiss begs the question: 10 years later, will these towns be retaken by the jihadists once the French bases are closed? The issue is on the minds of many observers because the Malian army, despite its nine years of Western support (i.e. training, weapons, funding), still seems unable to compete with an enemy that is spreading its influence southward.
In his Aug. 10 speech, Iyad Ag Ghali was quick to point out the "bitter failure" of France, arguing that victory was near. However, the battle is far from over for GSIM, as it differs from the Taliban in a few crucial ways. The group "does not have the government experience of the Taliban [in power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001] and remains, for the moment, the head of a jihadist insurgency with a very limited popular base," explains Rida Lyammouri, a researcher at the Moroccan think tank Policy Center for the New South. Another contrast is that GSIM does not have the unwavering support of a neighboring state, like the Taliban with Pakistan.
Even though the contexts and issues differ, Western interventionism nevertheless seems to fall into the same trap. "Whether it be a lack of specific knowledge of organizations or false interpretations: the experts fail to see the big picture," says Gilles Dorronsoro, a professor of political science at the University of Paris I and a specialist in Afghanistan who also conducts research on Malian institutions. "The same organizations produce assessments in Afghanistan as in Mali, and they typically come to the same conclusions. The circuit is closed. Part of the problem is that experts are judged by how they integrate decision makers and how much funding they can obtain rather than in building democratic institutions."
New political forces must emerge that correspond to the real aspirations of the people. This is scary for the West.
Elie Tenenbaum, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations also blames the effects of a "war economy" on undermining societal progress. "International aid increased suddenly, even though these countries did not have a state or government strong enough to manage it. This created an increase in corruption, a curse that has notably spread within the armies that makes the fight against terrorists even more complex."
Yvan Guichaoua says civilians have felt so disenchanted they have even switched over to the Islamist camp, less out of conviction than out of a lack of credible political alternative. "We looked the other way regarding their governance problems. And yet, these governments have been largely discredited by their own population," he explains.
"New political forces must emerge that correspond to the real aspirations of the people. This is scary for the West, because they will not necessarily be able to control them and their ideas could be similar to those of the Islamists, but they will be the only ones able to provide a sufficient counterweight," says Elie Tenenbaum, before offering a lesson from the Afghan crisis that could be useful in the Sahel: "Be modest in your ambitions. The international actors who are more focused on protecting their own interests must have their influence reduced to just enough to get by. The rest should depend on local actors."