Mali’s exit ushers in a new era of risks for France and Europe in Africa |
The withdrawal of French troops from historic ally Mali marks a loss of influence for Paris and Europe as a whole in Africa, clearing the way for other powers to expand their footprint there, experts say.
The French do not seem to have learned the lessons of the hasty US withdrawal from the Gulf region, where Iran and its proxies now have a free hand to wreak havoc.
In the rest of the Middle East, local governments cannot count on US support to deal with aggressive Iranian and Turkish ambitions as well as the resurgence of Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists.
In West Africa, China, Russia and Turkey could discover new opportunities as the balance of power seen in recent decades erodes after French forces found themselves ill-equipped to deal with an asymmetric fight with Islamic extremists.
The French intervention of Operation Serval in 2013 to repel jihadists from northern Mali was relatively successful militarily and even initially garnered support from the local population.
But the image of the French presence was gradually tarnished by continued insecurity and shifting public opinion against Barkhane’s long-term mission, until the military junta in Bamako made it clear that it was no longer desired.
France “has lost a lot of influence,” said Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, a Sahel expert at the Marseille-based National Research Institute for Sustainable Development.
“After celebrating the restoration of parliamentary democracy in Mali in 2013, he could not prevent repeated coups as Sahelians continued to accuse him of being the kingmaker in the region.”
Despite denunciations from Europe, the coups seemed to attract public support as locals saw military coups as their last resort against the growing extremist threat.
Although Paris’ latest plan is a redeployment around the Sahel to continue the fight against jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, there is no way to spin it except as a huge setback, according to the analysts.
The withdrawal from Mali is “a strategic defeat, because this withdrawal was exactly the goal of the jihadists”, said Denis Tull of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“It’s also a political setback, because Barkhane is not leaving Mali by choice, but because Bamako has chosen to break.”
A narrow focus on operations such as eliminating leaders of jihadist groups has left France blind to growing anti-colonial sentiment among the population, analysts say.
These real resentments have also been exploited by geopolitical adversaries.
Wagnerian mercenaries from Russia are now present in Mali and many other African countries, according to Western governments.
China is building infrastructure deals and trade ties across the region, while Turkey has boosted its military and economic presence in Africa in recent years, playing on cultural and Islamic ties.
“France took too many things for granted as it pursued its counterterrorism strategy, including the need to woo public opinion,” said independent US analyst Michael Shurkin.
“If France wants its counterterrorism strategy to succeed, it will have to interact differently with Africans.”
Russia, China and Turkey sense that “now is the right time to take their revenge by seizing the levers of influence and power from the West”, said Pascal Ausseur of the Mediterranean Foundation strategic studies.
The EU must compete with other actors “on African terms” so that geopolitical rivalries “do not end up being to the detriment of Africans”, a group of European academics wrote in the online journal World Politics Review on Tuesday. .
The question for France is whether it can afford to lose its traditional markets and its areas of political influence in the French-speaking regions of the continent, whether in West Africa or in the Maghreb, where it is already facing to fierce competition from China, Turkey and also the United States. .