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France in the Sahel: Are ‘forever wars’ the future of conflict?

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Whilst the world focussed on the US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Emmanuel Macron quietly announced on the 14th of July that France will reduce the number of soldiers stationed in Mali and the surrounding Sahel region. Seven years on from the French-led launch of their second campaign in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane, the conflict is at its deadliest. Despite promising some form of continued French presence, Macron called the Sahel an ‘endless task’, blaming local governments for not taking responsibility. In the last twenty years, Western powers have constantly found themselves tangled in ‘forever wars’ with no apparent exit strategy. It is not the case that modern warfare is no longer winnable; rather, it seems Western governments have failed to adapt their expectations and practices to suit contemporary conflict.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with an unwinnable war. Unwinnable, that is, in the romanticised trope that has a hold of the public imagination of a final, conclusive event or battle from which the victors seize control, and the losers accept defeat.Counter-insurgency operations like the Sahel or Afghanistan will never end with an Omaha Beach or Battle of Waterloo. In wars that are not of national survival, it is not a binary case of victory or defeat but rather a spectrum of potential results.

Operation Barkhane is one that mirrors the events in Afghanistan in many ways. Following an initial, swift military success that saw the French-led NATO forces recapture the Northern parts of Mali from the Tuareg and Islamic extremist militias. What followed, as in Afghanistan, was a failure to implement soft practices. Attempts at nation building failed. What is left now is political instability. Mali has endured two coups in less than a year, and a conflict in which ten times more people die every year than when France originally started their involvement.

 Perhaps frightened to come across as patronising colonial overlords, France insists on being apolitical in a conflict that is distinctly political. Upon arriving in the region, the French goal was to stabilise the region such that the government could take control. As a result, there was little pressure on the current government to reform or even to hold them to account: in 2020, more civilians were killed by government forces than by militias. Macron now blames local governments for their failure to stabilise the region. French forces, however, took the back-foot on non-military action, displaying a dissonance between doctrine and practice. (see: Gagner la bataille, Conduire à la paix)

Insurgencies can only really be fully defeated by drying up support for them amongst the population, for that is where they get the majority of their soldiers from. Following extensive interviews with 63 former jihadists in Mali, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) concluded that “factors that are not economic, religious, or ideological explain the presence of young people in the ranks of armed Jihadist groups in Mali.” The motivation behind joining extremist groups is rarely a case of radicalisation but instead an act of protecting themselves or family.

Simply restoring a country to its status quo before intervention holds little persuasive power in the face of the revolutionary rhetoric of insurgencies and promises only to return the country to the same situation that bred the unrest in the first place. Consequently, President Biden’s speech on the Afghanistan withdrawal seems counterintuitive (as well as contradicting his own comments at the start of the conflict): the purpose of the war in Afghanistan has “always been preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland” and “never supposed to be creating a unified centralised democracy”. 

Biden criticised the shift in foreign policy that saw Afghanistan change from a counter terrorism operation to ‘nation building’. Yet, if implemented successfully, this ‘nation building’ is a valid method of counter-terrorism that cuts off support for radical groups in the community. To propose that a ‘centralised democracy’ was ever the goal of the operation displays a misunderstanding of the region as well as a tacit assumption of the superiority of American values. Meaningful change is something that would never be achieved by attempting to shoehorn US’s ideology into a country that has historically resisted centralisation, instead functioning in fractious clans. Ironically, the closest that Afghanistan has come to a centralised power structure is in resisting invasion from outside powers like the British. 

 When launching the War on Terror, President Bush announced, “The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain.” By this, he was implying victory but perhaps, 20 years on, it is clear that what was certain was that the results of the war were to be just as elusive and unquantifiable as the terms on which set out. Ultimately, it is the transience of post-colonial presence that is problematic for intervening countries. They have neither the incentive nor time to shore up their own support in the host country and so, naturally, military action takes primacy as it offers a quick solution. Whilst the focus is primarily a military one, Western countries will provide very little long-term benefit to their host nations. 

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