Small Wars Journal

Counterinsurgency in Mali: The Case for a Surge

Sat, 10/24/2020 - 4:16pm

Counterinsurgency in Mali: The Case for a Surge    


By Connor Hirsch


Following former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s resignation and dissolution of his government after a military coup, the challenge of waging counterinsurgency against jihadist groups will pass to Mali’s next leaders, whoever they may be. The Keita government’s failure to provide adequate security in many communities after nearly a decade of conflict contributed to the popular calls for changes in leadership and allowed insurgent movements to metastasize.[1] Despite enthusiasm for political change in the months preceding the coup, the same grievances that undermined Keita’s government will soon return if counterinsurgency efforts remain ineffective. For Mali to emerge from this transition with a viable chance of improving security, Bamako should pursue a troop surge as the means of prosecuting a more robust counterinsurgency campaign.

A larger force would allow Mali’s counterinsurgency to provide protection and services for the population, building legitimacy and paving the way for stability. From the British in Malaya to the Americans in Iraq, many counterinsurgents have deployed prodigious numbers of military personnel and police to execute “clear, hold, and build” strategies.[2] Securing disputed territory and remedying local grievances are staples of the population-centric approach to counterinsurgency proponed by theorists such as David Galula.[3] Prioritizing recruitment and training for a larger Malian security force while soliciting reinforcements and funding from international partners would improve the counterinsurgency’s capabilities, enabling it to clear territory of insurgent influence, hold against resurgence, and build sustainable economic, political, and judicial apparatuses across the country.

Mali’s jihadist insurgencies are symptoms of communal violence and a lack of government presence. Insecurity at the local level undermines the government’s legitimacy, contributes to volatile security dilemmas between several of the country’s ethnic groups, and allows jihadists to coerce vulnerable communities and coopt their grievances to build support.[4] Since September 2019, over 1,000 incidents of political violence have killed 2,788 people in Mali, according publicly available data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).[5] For many Malians, the government does not offer adequate protection. Devoid of meaningful state security, some groups have taken matters into their own hands.

In 2019, ethnic Dogon fighters massacred around 160 Fulani people in the village of Ogossagou in central Mali.[6] The perpetrators alleged their victims had supported al Qaeda-linked jihadists from whom local Dogon populations had no government protection.[7] Groups operating in Mali frequently manipulate the absence of central authority to garner support by offering security that the government cannot provide.[8] Analysis indicates Mali’s Jihadists exploit conflicts between Dogon and Fulani groups to bolster their ranks from vulnerable Fulani communities.[9] Some Fulani assert that they are the targets of government-sponsored persecution by Dogon militias, and just days before the Ogossagou massacre, an al Qaeda-linked group claimed that a previous attack on a military base had been reprisal for violence against Mali’s Fulani.[10]

The impending change in leadership will mean little if Mali’s next government is unable to arbitrate these local conflicts and deny insurgents access to vulnerable populations. Myriad groups seek to exploit unsettled popular grievances and the lack of state control. Despite the resignation of Mali’s prime minister following the 2019 Ogossagou massacre, over 30 Fulani died in a subsequent attack on the same village in early 2020.[11]

A troop surge would provide the means to address the root causes of Mali’s insurgencies. With ample security forces, the next government could mediate ethnic conflict and prevent fits of violence in troubled areas, while degrading insurgent groups, rebuilding legitimacy with the population, and providing stability to promote economic vibrancy and political participation. It is imperative that Bamako takes steps to increase recruitment, provide better training, and deploy military and police across the country in greater numbers.

A surge will not be simple. Limited resources have precluded strategic progress throughout the counterinsurgency despite the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping forces and French counterterrorism operations. Bamako commands just 12,000 troops to defend a population of almost 20 million,[12] and the feasibility of the Keita government’s plans to increase the size of Mali’s military by 50% in 2020 is unclear following the coup.[13] Even maintaining the relatively meagre force is taxing, as the military payroll takes up a sizable portion of Mali’s budget.[14] Increasing military spending will be difficult because Mali is among the world’s poorest countries, with a GDP per capita of just $890.74 in 2019.[15]

Although Mali does not presently possess the means to execute a surge on its own, it is not alone in the fight. Despite international criticism of the coup, foreign support remains.[16] The security of many countries depends on the outcome of Mali’s counterinsurgency campaign.[17] Just days after the mutiny, the defense ministers of Britain, Germany, and France affirmed their countries’ commitments to ongoing missions in Mali even as they called for transition from the military junta to civilian-led government.[18] Britain and Germany each have several hundred troops in Mali,[19] while France has committed to add to its force of 4,500 and increase counterinsurgency integration.[20] Although the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Mali from decision-making bodies, closed border crossings, and ceased financial transactions after the coup,[21] Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo remain among the 10 largest contributors in troops and police to the United Nations mission in Mali.[22] Continued foreign support is essential as foreign troops form an indispensable pillar of the counterinsurgency. Mali’s next leaders must ensure partners stay engaged while working to encourage larger deployments of allied forces.

However, increased financial assistance may prove more helpful for overcoming scarcity and implementing a surge. Mali has a potential trove of manpower which it currently cannot afford to recruit, as scores of Malians are denied jobs with the military because of budget constraints. Some estimates indicate there are on average three candidates for every open military position.[23] Malian security forces must be front and center if the next government is to improve perceptions of its legitimacy, so the benefits of funding greater indigenous recruitment exceed the numerical increases. Mali, neighboring states, and international stakeholders should therefore prioritize greater funding for recruitment and training so that Malian troops can form the core of a surge.

If Mali’s next leaders are to resolve the country’s insurgencies, they cannot continue with the listless approach to counterinsurgency that has been ineffective for so long. Moreover, the international community must not lose sight of Mali’s importance in the fight against extremism. Political upheaval threatens to create a power vacuum in Mali and further destabilize the already volatile Sahel region. Business as usual will not suffice. More troops and money are required. Bamako must stress that greater multinational commitment to a population-centric approach is necessary to ensure regional security. The challenges are immense, but with sufficient financial investment and more boots on the ground, Mali will be able to grow its armed forces and project authority and security throughout the embattled nation. Only then does Mali have a chance to create the conditions for stability and peace.



[1] “Fear and loathing in the Sahel: The challenge of mediation in Mali”, The Economist, August 6, 2020,

[2] R. W. Komer, The Malayan Emergency in Retrospect: Organization of a Successful Counterinsurgency Effort (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1972), 38-39.; David Petraeus, “How We Won in Iraq”, Foreign Policy, October 29, 2013,

[3] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, foreword by John A. Nagl (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006), 54-55.

[4] Flore Berger, “Jihadist violence and communal divisions fuel worsening conflict in Mali and wider Sahel”, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, June 20, 2019,

[5] “The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) Codebook, 2020”, ACLED, 2020, 

[6] “Massacre of 157 villagers in Mali spurs U.N. investigation”, NBC News, March 27, 2019,

[7] “Mali bans hunting society after attack kills 130 Fulani”, BBC News, March 24, 2019,

[8] “Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making?”, International Crisis Group, Report No. 238, July 6, 2016,

[9] Flore Berger, “Jihadist violence and communal divisions fuel worsening conflict in Mali and wider Sahel”, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, June 20, 2019,

[10] “Mali bans hunting society after attack kills 130 Fulani”, BBC News, March 24, 2019,

[11] Alessandra Prentice, “Attackers kill 31 in Mali village, after massacre last year at same site”, Reuters, February 14, 2020,

[12] Danielle Paquette, “A tiny army is fighting for 20 million lives. Can Mali’s military grow fast enough?”, The Washington Post, March 11, 2020,

[13] Edward McAllister, “Mali plans to increase the size of its army to rein in jihadists”, Reuters, January 29, 2020,

[14] Danielle Paquette, “A tiny army is fighting for 20 million lives. Can Mali’s military grow fast enough?”, The Washington Post, March 11, 2020,

[15] “GDP per capita (current US$) – Mali”, The World Bank, Accessed September 19, 2020,

[16] “Mali coup: UN joins global condemnation of military takeover”, BBC News, August 20, 2020,

[17] Michael Shurkin, “Why the UK May Be Sending Troops to Mali”, The RAND Blog, March 16, 2020,

[18] “Germany, France, Britain to keep troops in Mali despite coup”, Deutsche Welle, August 21, 2020,

[19] Ibid.

[20] John Irish and Marine Pennetier, “France, West Africa to unite forces in fight against Islamist militants”, Reuters, January 14, 2020,

[21] “Mali coup leaders, ECOWAS fail to reach agreement on transition”, Al Jazeera, August 24, 2020,

[22] “MINUSMA Fact Sheet”, United Nations Peacekeeping, Accessed September 17, 2020,

[23] Danielle Paquette, “A tiny army is fighting for 20 million lives. Can Mali’s military grow fast enough?”, The Washington Post, March 11, 2020,

About the Author(s)

Connor Hirsch is an international public opinion researcher with a focus on Africa and an interest in insurgency and civil war. He has gained on-the-ground experience through fieldwork in several countries in Africa including Cameroon, Mali, Senegal, and Tunisia. Connor is also a Master’s candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:18am

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