On February 17, amid frenetic but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to prevent Russia from attacking Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron put an end to an unwinnable conflict in a different part of the world. “Within the next four to six months,” Macron announced, France would be withdrawing its troops from Mali, the centerpiece of its counterterrorism operation in the Sahel, a wide strip of land that cuts across Africa just below the Sahara. For nine years—longer than France fought to keep Algeria—the Sahel operation had involved as many as 5,100 soldiers, 780 military vehicles, and some 40 war planes, including six Mirage fighter jets and six Reaper drones, at a cost of about $1.2 billion per year. Yet today, the region is plagued by insecurity, prone to military coups, and host to the fastest-growing Islamist insurgency in the world. Not least, as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s global anti-Western strategy, Russia has gained a foothold in the Sahel, where it seeks to replace France as the “gendarme of Africa.”

As war has returned to Europe, France is winding down its war in Africa. It is tempting to regard the coincidence of these two events—coming only six months after the United States pulled out from Afghanistan—as signaling a major shift in geopolitics. After 20 years of the global war on terrorism, the West is returning to a world of great-power rivalry and grand strategy. Today a crisis with Moscow, tomorrow perhaps Beijing. Amid the Russian onslaught on Ukraine, the doomed U.S. mission in Afghanistan and the French debacle in the Sahel suggest that the war on terrorism was a misguided and debilitating detour on the world’s periphery that has distracted the Western alliance from addressing its main threats.

Just as it was during the Cold War, however, Africa, has become a crucial battleground in the confrontation between the West and its rivals, Russia and China. In economic affairs, China’s influence in Africa far outweighs Russia’s. But on security matters, Moscow’s intervention on the continent has become increasingly important, in ways that directly contributed to the collapse of the French mission in the Sahel. The same private Russian military contractor—the Wagner Group—whose fighters entered eastern Ukraine ahead of Russia’s all-out assault has also established, over the past several years, Russian bridgeheads in a handful of countries across Africa. And it was with Wagner Group support that the ruling junta in Mali was able to get French troops to leave the country. All the more crucial, then, to understand how the French mission went awry, and what the West might need to do differently in its future engagement in Africa.

The Wandering Dune

The original rationale for the French mission in Africa seemed clear. In 2013, France intervened in Mali, its former colony, to prevent a jihadi takeover. On the heels of an attempt by Tuareg rebels to set up their own independent state in Mali’s north, an al Qaeda–affiliated insurgency had conquered a desert-like expanse of about 500,000 square miles—more than one and a half times the size of Texas—and was threatening to move further south toward Bamako, the country’s capital. Malian interim President Dioncounda Traoré, who had been charged with organizing new elections after a military coup in 2012, requested French forces “to come and rescue Mali.” In a turnabout from the non-interventionist position he had taken before, then French President François Hollande, a Socialist, soon obliged.

As with the United States in Afghanistan, the French mission, called Opération Serval, got off to a lightning start. Within weeks, the jihadis were on the run; with the help of desert-experienced Chadian fighters, the French forces pursued them deep into the Sahara and, by their own account, killed some 600 of them. In the summer of 2013, the UN sent some 15,000 blue helmets to back up the French mission, and countrywide elections were held; Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta became Mali’s new president. At Keïta’s inauguration ceremony, Hollande, who had made the trip from Paris, exclaimed in front of an enthusiastic crowd: “We have won this war!”

In fact, the war had just begun. As with the United States in Afghanistan, French forces were no longer defeating a one-time insurgency but engaging in state-building. Nor did peacekeepers and an elected head of state mean that democracy had taken hold. The jihadis returned, this time mingling among local communities, and before long Keïta’s authority barely extended beyond the outskirts of Bamako. Confronted with this new threat, France responded, as U.S. President Barack Obama had in Afghanistan, with a surge and an expanded mandate. In August 2014, the French mission was extended across the entire Sahel—to include Burkina Faso and Niger as well as Mali—in what now became known as Opération Barkhane, aptly named after a crescent-shaped wandering dune.

French soldiers were often unable to distinguish jihadists from other groups vying for control.

The results were hardly encouraging. From a military perspective, the French eliminated a great number of jihadi leaders and won every battle they fought. Yet the French soldiers were often unable to distinguish Islamist terrorists from the many other armed groups vying for the control of resources in the region: Tuareg secessionists; smugglers of cigarettes, petroleum, or fake medicine; youthful rebels who were challenging corrupt and ossified rulers, so-called gerontocrats; and nomadic herders, who were engaged in their own conflict with farmers over grazing land. Meanwhile, security across the region steadily deteriorated. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), more than 23,500 civilians have been killed in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger since 2015, about half of whom were killed in the last three years alone. Since 2019, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the three Sahel states has quadrupled to some 1.4 million people. And the Islamist battalions, or katiba, as they are known, are now closer to Bamako than they were in 2013.

In parallel, the French assumption that it would be able to build stable local government and competent local security forces quickly proved to be a mirage. In Mali and in Burkina Faso, elected governments were toppled by military coups. This was despite the fact that the armed forces of both countries had received decades of Western training, not only by French forces but also by the United States after 9/11 and, since 2014, by the European Union. Much like the U.S.-backed Afghan National Army in Afghanistan, these forces never achieved the capabilities needed to mount effective independent operations against the Islamist insurgencies. Even more disastrous was the G5 Sahel, a joint fighting force that was set up in 2014 by five Sahelian states—Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. It was supposed to take over from French forces within three years. But it couldn’t even defend its own operational headquarters in Sévaré, in central Mali, which was overrun by jihadis in 2018.

The French thus turned to their European partners for support. In 2020, a joint European mission, Task Force Takuba—the Tuareg word for “sword”—was established. But only the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Lithuania, and Sweden committed troops, and not in sufficient numbers to reach the 900—a third of the full complement—that the French counted on. Macron, who has long promoted an autonomous European defense force, had hoped West Africa might be the crucible in which it could be forged. But other European leaders, namely Angela Merkel, were far more concerned about mass migration out of the Sahel, which they hoped to stem with development aid, than with the terrorist threats that the French were ostensibly fighting. Once again, the French were left largely on their own in the Sahel.

It was in this already highly deteriorated context that a new foreign-security provider arrived in Mali, the Wagner Group, Putin’s Trojan horse: a proxy force for Russia’s Ministry of Defense, which shared little of France’s concern for state-building in the Sahel.

Russian Guns for Malian Gold

After a quarter century of maintaining a low profile in Africa, Russia had returned to the continent in 2017 under the guise of the Wagner Group, a public-private paramilitary army run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a secretive oligarch who is part of Putin’s inner circle. At first, the Russian mercenaries deployed in Sudan, but soon after they were also active in the Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar, Libya, and Mozambique. As in other parts of the world, Putin’s strategy was both anti-Western and opportunistic. The Kremlin’s objective was to engineer a low-cost and, ideally, self-financing intervention that would weaken the liberal international order that is underwritten by the West in general and, in Francophone Africa, by France in particular. As such, the Russian approach differs strikingly from China’s far more comprehensive and long-term strategy, which aims at building a worldwide imperium and whose economic interests in Africa dwarf Russia’s by a measure of almost ten to one.

Still, Moscow’s three-pronged foray into Africa—based on paramilitary security forces, natural resource extraction, and Russian manipulation of local media—has been successful in more than one African country. In the Central African Republic, another former French colony, Wagner was able to sideline the French who in 2016 ended their seventh military intervention in that country since its independence. In exchange for extensive mining rights, Wagner has protected the CAR’s president against rebel advances on the capital. And in Burkina Faso, following the successful military coup in January, supporters of the new regime thronged the streets of the country’s capital waving Russian flags. From afar, Prigozhin hailed the regime change as yet another milestone in a “new era of decolonization.” One of his close collaborators, Alexander Ivanov, speaking in the name of the “community of Russian officers,” publicly suggested that Wagner “instructors” train the armed forces of the new regime.

Russia's mercenaries understood raw power and had no interest in state building.

Meanwhile, in Mali, a military regime backed into a corner by the French had already allowed Wagner to gain a foothold in the Sahel. In August 2020, Assimi Goïta, a 39-year-old Malian officer, and four other colonels overthrew President Keïta. At first, Macron seemed more than happy with unconstitutional military rule, which he praised as “a new window of opportunity” for Mali and, perhaps more important in his eyes, for the French mission in the country. But then, in May 2021, the junta staged a second coup and arrested the civilian figureheads—the interim president and prime minister—whom they had previously accepted for the sake of optics. Soon after, the regime struck a deal with Wagner in which the Russian group committed to furnishing 1,000 armed men in exchange for providing access to Mali’s state-owned gold mines to a Russian company said to be controlled by Prigozhin.

Following the deal, 800 Wagner employees were deployed, mostly in Mali’s central region, which the French had stayed away from for fear of getting drawn into a complex local conflict between sedentary peasants, the Dogon, and a regional nomadic community, the Fulani. In parallel, Mali’s junta has opened “talks about talks” with one of the two alliances of jihadi forces, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), an al Qaeda affiliate led by Iyad ag Ghali, a veteran Tuareg rebel. Since the fall of Kabul, JNIM has made the departure of the French army a precondition for any negotiations with the Malian junta. Macron’s reaction to these developments left no room for ambiguity. “Radical Islamism in Mali with our soldiers on the spot? No way! There is this temptation in Mali today. But if it goes that way, I will leave,” he warned.

The point of no return came in December when the junta announced that, instead of organizing elections in February, as promised, their plan was to stay in power for up to five years. In response, West Africa’s regional organization ECOWAS imposed crippling sanctions on Mali, cutting the country off from regional trade and financial flows. Mali’s junta accused France of instigating the sanctions, the harshest ever adopted against a military regime in Africa by fellow African countries. Now it was clear that the French mission’s days in Mali were numbered. With Wagner already waiting in the wings to replace the French army, the quintet of colonels in Bamako seized the pretext of “hostile declarations” made in Paris by France’s minister of foreign affairs to expel the French ambassador to Mali. Macron had no other choice left but to announce France’s departure from Mali. Just weeks before he is to stand for reelection, Macron squarely laid the blame at the doorstep of Mali’s junta. “We cannot remain militarily engaged with de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden objectives we do not share,” he said.

Leaving the Crocodiles’ Swamp

Like the United States’ failure in Afghanistan, France’s debacle in the Sahel was a story long foretold. Despite its success in eliminating jihadi leaders, France has been ultimately denied victory by both Sahelian jihadis and the local states it had ostensibly come to protect. To begin with, the French mission was hobbled by a drastic misreading of the terrorist threat in Africa. Until now, there has been very little evidence that the jihadis in the Sahel have ambitions that extend beyond the region, or the means to pursue them. Notably, no terrorist attack in Europe has been traced to the Sahel, not even in France itself, which has suffered numerous extremist attacks and which is home to many Sahelians, including an estimated 150,000 Malians. To the contrary, it appears that many of the Sahel’s Islamist groups have pledged allegiance to either al Qaeda or the Islamic State simply for self-aggrandizement and symbolic prestige in their local struggles. In any event, keeping them in check is primarily an intelligence operation with little need for costly and counterproductive long-term military occupation.

Beyond the terrorism problem, however, was a serious misconception of local politics. Limited by its own security perspective and the Sahel’s utter lack of institutional capacity, the French mission was never able to shore up the political foundations necessary to withstand the forces of insurgency and autocratic or populist rule. As with the United States in Afghanistan, France failed to acquire the crucial understanding of social forces on the ground that would allow it to build effective long-term community support. Its colonial legacy and, even more so, its long postcolonial —some would say neocolonial— presence in Francophone Africa (which is often referred to as la Françafrique) made France a convenient target for all of the region’s problems. Burdened with these associations, the French army was all too easily displaced by Putin’s Russian mercenaries, who understood raw power and had no interest in setting up stable, accountable governments.

Paradoxically, Putin himself has lowered the political cost of Macron’s withdrawal. Amid a far more terrifying conflict with Russia in Europe itself, the utter defeat of the expensive and protracted French mission in Mali seems unlikely to hurt the French president in his bid for reelection. On the contrary, the junta in Mali and the war in Ukraine have provided France a way out it had failed to find by itself. After its withdrawal from Mali, France intends to maintain an expeditionary force of some 2,400 soldiers, and the bulk of its current materiel, in Niger and Chad. Paris will also rely on its permanently prepositioned 1,650 soldiers based in Gabon, Senegal, and Ivory Coast to defend what is left of its postcolonial preeminence in West Africa.

Fortunately for the French, their 2,400 remaining soldiers in Mali, who are now packing up to leave, are based some 650 miles northeast of Bamako, which means the “crocodiles’ swamp” in Bambara, the most widely spoken language in Mali. On the main French base in Gao, a monument erected in the center of the staging ground commemorates the 54 French soldiers killed in action since 2013. There is only enough space left to enter one more name, and the French must now hope that it will remain empty.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • STEPHEN SMITH is the former Africa Editor of Le Monde. He teaches African Studies at Duke University.
  • More By Stephen Smith