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Assessment of the Efficacy of the French Military Intervention in the Northern Mali Conflict
This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019. More information about the writing contest can be found here.
In January 2012, an insurgency broke out in the Azawad region of northern Mali, as the Tuareg’s fought for an independent or at least autonomous homeland. The Northern Mali Conflict began as a classic example of an ethnic conflict in a weak state. However, the chaotic conflict enabled multiple domestic and transnational Islamist insurgent groups to enter it in the summer of 2012. By fall 2012, Mali was partitioned between multiple factions. But in January 2013, the conflict entered a new phase towards either an Islamist victory or a Hobbesian conflict between multiple groups in a failed state. In likely response to the United Nations (UN) Security Council authorizing an Economic Community of West African States military intervention in Mali in December 2012 (African-led International Support Mission to Mali aka AFISMA), Islamist insurgents launched an offensive which threatened to defeat the central government of Mali and capture the capital of Bamako. Due to a slow response from other African regional security partners and intergovernmental organizations, the French government determined that it had to intervene.
Domestic political considerations in France were, as always, part of the calculus of intervention. Mali was an opportunity for French President Francois Hollande to improve his popularity, which had been in decline from the moment he took office, but there were also real security concerns around transnational terrorism justifying intervention. Hollande announced on January 11, 2013, the following three objectives for the intervention: (1) stop terrorist aggression, (2) protect French nationals, and (3) restore territorial integrity to Mali. The operation would be limited in duration and not an open-ended commitment to occupation or nation-building.
French operations began with the insertion of special operations forces and an air offensive. At the same time, ground forces were moved into theater from neighboring states and France with the help of other nations in transport, aerial refueling, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Major ground operations commenced on January 15. In total, France deployed approximately 4,000 troops to the conflict and had achieved the initial three military objectives by February. Withdrawal was announced on March 8. According to a RAND Corporation study, Operation Serval was a high-risk operation, because it involved a small expeditionary force waging maneuver warfare with low logistical support and consisted of platoons and companies pulled from multiple units. But in the end, Operation Serval demonstrated the viability of a force pieced together at the sub-battalion level into a competent fighting force suited for counterinsurgency warfare. This piecemeal approach to deployment is a very different model than expeditionary deployment by the U.S. Marine Corps which deploys a complete combined arms unit around a reinforced division, brigade, or battalion, depending on the mission.
French military operations in Mali did not end with Operation Serval. In April 2013, the UN Security Council authorized a Chapter VII (i.e., peace enforcement) mission, Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali aka MINUSMA. Additionally, UN Security Council resolution 2100 authorized “French troops, within the limits of their capacities and areas of deployment, to use all necessary means…to intervene in support of elements of MINUSMA when under imminent and serious threat.” As a practical matter, France’s troops became the chief counter-terrorism arm of MINUSMA.
After announced withdrawal, France relabeled its intervention to Operation Barkhane (approximately 3,000 troops deployed) and spanned the G5 Sahel in the countries of Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Mali. This continued deployment is a repeated pattern seen in civil wars. With no peace to keep, the UN relies on a parallel “green helmet” force alongside “blue helmet” peacekeepers to maintain security and assist in maintaining order in a conflict zone (e.g., Unified Task Force aka UNITAF in Somalia, the Australian led International Force East Timor aka INTERFET in East Timor).
MINUSMA followed the standard liberal peacebuilding playbook: disarmament, demobilization, reinsertion of combatants; security sector reform; some form of “truth and reconciliation commission;” constitutional democratic governance; re-establishment of state sovereignty over the territory; and rebuilding civil society. The UN playbook of liberal peacebuilding was a qualified success in both Cambodia and East Timor, where the UN supervised the withdrawal of foreign armies (Vietnam and Indonesia respectively) and was in effect the civilian administration and military. The UN successfully ran free elections to bring a new democratically elected government into power.
From a conventional military perspective, Operation Serval was a success, routing multiple irregular forces on the battlefield and securing the central government and French nationals in Mali in a month-long campaign. It also demonstrated the viability of sub-battalion-level deployment of expeditionary units. However, Operation Serval did not address any of the underlying state weakness that enabled the insurgency in the first place. Instead, the French Army has become embroiled in a “forever war” as the UN attempts to build a liberal state from a failed state, under very different circumstances from their previous successes in Cambodia and East Timor.
In Mali, multiple non-state actors—various coalitions of Tuareg clans, and multiple domestic and transnational Islamist insurgent groups—pose a threat to the incumbent government. The French are in a sense captive to a UN playbook that has worked in cases dissimilar to the situation in Mali. According to the opportunity model of civil war, it is state capacity, not the redress of grievances, that cause civil wars. There is an inverted U-shaped relationship between government and civil war. Strong autocracies don’t have civil wars and strong democracies don’t have civil wars. It is the middle ground of anocracies that have wars, because they are weak institutionally. This weakness explains the difficulty that post-colonial states have in making transitions from autocracy to multi-party democracy, and explains the durability of rebel victories. Because the UN is transitioning an autocracy, Mali will be vulnerable. Therefore, France and any multilateral partners whom they enlist to support them are set up as the de facto guarantor of security in Mali for a long time to come.
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