The French president is learning yet another hard lesson in foreign policy mere weeks before the April presidential election.
The retreat from the Empire was something that Emmanuel Macron, one of the youngest world leaders in history, never had to experience.
He is the first president of France to be born after the Algerian War of Independence – the seismic defeat in 1962 that sent hundreds of thousands of European colonisers fleeing the now-largest country in Africa.
Once the jewel in France’s vast imperial crown, losing Algeria was a devastating blow for plenty of French people. Still, for the more enlightened, it signalled the end of the firepower and cruelty that had characterised so many overseas adventures coordinated from Paris.
However, such a legacy should certainly have been at the fore of Macron’s mind when he ordered the withdrawal of French forces from Mali this month.
As is so typical of Macron, he refused to accept failure, let alone defeat. And yet, pulling out of the West African nation after nine years had a distinctly sombre feel to it.
It followed a French intervention in Mali in early 2013 – one that cracked down on militant groups that were threatening the democratically elected government in France’s former colony.
Soon, the Mali military initiative had developed into a counterterrorism operation called Operation Barkhane, the biggest French overseas military mission in Africa – and indeed anywhere else in the world – since the Algerian War. Until early this month, France had about 4,300 troops in the wider Africa region, including 2,400 in Mali alone. Early optimism was buoyed by neutralising groups linked to Al Qaeda and Daesh. The French claimed some 1000 terrorists had been killed within a year.
However, opponents in the Malian capital Bamako soon began to view the touring army as acting just like their colonial forebears. They resented seeing the blue-white-and-red tricolour flying and the emphasis that the so-called “liberators” put on armed conflict.
Parallels with the Afghan War were justified. Western forces led by America went into the central Asian country in 2001 at the beginning of the so-called “War on Terror” following the September 11 attacks. The idea was to hunt down Al Qaeda training camps, and indeed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, who had planned and funded 9/11.
After limited gains against the terrorists, including bin Laden’s death at the hands of US special forces in neighbouring Pakistan in 2011, it was soon apparent that Afghanistan had turned into a textbook study in how not to try and build democracy by superior firepower.
There is little doubt that President Macron was following the example of his American counterpart, Joe Biden, when he decided to exit from Mali. France’s death toll in Mali was, of course, not as high as in Afghanistan, but people were sick of seeing French troops returning to Paris in body bags.
Just as importantly, those threatening pro-French forces in Mali were becoming more popular than Macron’s troops and the EU and UN peacekeepers who were supporting them.
The terrorists were soon exploiting grassroots anger at the presence of all these Westerners, and unleashing attacks across the Sahel – the vast region that covers thousands of miles of Mali and other former French colonies such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger. It was clear that the French feared a “Forever War,” the name given to the seemingly endless Afghan conflict.
The war in Mali was not as long as the one in Afghanistan, but it was equally difficult to execute. Trying to create a sense of security using the latest military hardware simply did not work. On the contrary, it caused a horrific loss of civilian lives and wide-scale destruction.
The last year in Mali was the most lethal since fighting began in 2012, with 2,845 people killed. The suffering was on all sides. Out of some 53 French soldiers killed serving in West Africa in recent years, 48 died in Mali. This all smacked of doomed military adventures such as Vietnam and, of course, Algeria.
Macron has since insisted that drones and special forces will support pro-Western African troops in Mali, but the downscaling of a full-blown anti-terrorist operation certainly sounds like defeat.
What is clear is that there is currently a “scramble for Africa” feel to the geopolitical situation across the African continent. China is extending its influence there, while the increasing presence of Russian mercenaries in countries such as Mali is of huge concern. Not only is Moscow destroying world peace in Ukraine, but the presence of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner in Africa certainly makes it look like Russia is stepping into the vacuum left by the withdrawal of countries like France.
Macron’s domestic critics are certainly depicting the Mali retreat as a humiliation. “It is an inglorious end to an armed intervention that began in euphoria and which ends, nine years later, against a backdrop of crisis between Mali and France,” wrote Le Monde.
As he contemplates an increasingly stumbling foreign policy – his attempt to resolve the Ukraine crisis using shuttle diplomacy appears to have gotten nowhere – Macron will be getting a very strong idea of how his colonial forebears felt when the world order they had taken for granted started to fall apart.
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