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Vol 62 No 17

Published 26th August 2021

French lessons from Kabul

The West's debacle in Afghanistan may force France to rethink its military stance and diplomacy in West Africa

Two months after Emmanuel Macron announced the end of its anti-Islamist Opération Barkhane in the Sahel, policymakers and public opinion are confronted with the dramatic and powerful television images from Kabul airport.

Macron announced in June that the seven-year-old deployment in the Sahel – south of the Sahara Desert – would be slimmed down, against a background of complaints. Nationalist Malian critics felt the former colonial power was overstaying its welcome, while French parliamentarians were pressing for a clearer mission roadmap (AC Vol 62 No 15, Macron's man).

The resulting headlines about the 'End of Barkhane' helped to defuse criticism. But Macron's subsequent 9 July confirmation that 2,500-3,000 of France's 5,100 troops would remain in theatre got much less attention (AC Vol 62 No 13, President Macron ends Opération Barkhane and dispels a few illusions).

The warning lesson from the United States' mishandled Afghanistan retreat seems obvious, as Macron starts to prune back and reshape the French force presence across the Sahel, leaving the armies of the region to take on a broader share of the struggle against jihadism.

And Iyad ag Ghaly, leader of the Al Qaida-affiliated Jama'at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) militant alliance, was not slow to imply parallels, issuing a 10 August congratulatory audio message to the Taliban. Pointedly he noted their patience, implying that this was an encouraging precedent for jihadists in Mali, themselves once routed by foreign intervention in an earlier French military intervention, the 2013 Opération Serval.

Amid worldwide shock at events in Kabul, the priority for Macron and his most trusted regional allies will be to convey a sense of stable control and deliberation. And that may mean adjusting the public message.

Macron has to reassure public and political opinion in the G5 Sahel nations that France is not pulling out, and that it will maintain the reconfigured military presence for the long-term. France will also have to show it is acting in full support of the G5 forces: Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger. And that message will be directed at the militant groups too.

Paris may also have to rethink the planned withdrawal from northern Mali bases – at Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu – if this risks sending a message of 'retreat', rather than the planned strategic redeployment to the 'three frontiers region', where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, and where the jihadist threat is now greatest.

Even if it sticks to the full redeployment plan outlined in July, France will surely now be even keener to highlight the gradual muscling up of the now 600-strong European Force Takuba, with the arrival of extra participants – notably Italian special forces with helicopters expected next month.

Takuba's role will be all the more important following Chad's 21 August decision to withdraw 600 troops – half its deployed contingent – from the three frontiers region.

Once the rainy season peters out in a few weeks, a priority may be a reinforced G5-Takuba-Barkhane effort to curb the armed groups that have recently stepped up attacks in the three frontiers region and may now take encouragement from events in Afghanistan.

But beyond the purely strategic and military, there are also social and political lessons to be drawn from the Afghanistan experience. In excluding the Afghan government from his negotiations with the Taliban, former US President Donald Trump effectively told the militants that the elected administration in Kabul did not matter. And in setting an arbitrary 11 September deadline for US withdrawal, President Joe Biden signalled that domestic American politics counted for more than the state of play on the ground in Afghanistan.

Despite occasional arrogant faux pas, Macron seems unlikely to fall into the first trap. He has extensively consulted Sahelian partners, particularly his trusted allies, Presidents Mohamed Bazoum, Mohamed Ould Cheikh el Ghazouani and Roch Kaboré of Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, respectively, over the shape of the redeployment (AC Vol 62 No 15, Burkina without Barkhane). And Western foreign ministers were also consulted at a summit on the issue.

Meanwhile, some pundits had speculated that the prospect of a tough French re-election race early next year might exert pressure for phased troop withdrawals to suit the political timetable. However, recent Afghan events may have changed that dynamic: premature troop withdrawals from the Sahel might now be a 'bad look' electorally.

Furthermore, the Afghan crisis is a reminder of how the fragilities of a political system and security forces can be disguised by apparent political and social progress.

While the Sahelian states mostly enjoy greater resilience and legitimacy than the Afghan government did, that cannot be taken for granted. As Afghanistan exemplifies, liberal urban politics and lively media and civil society are valuable but are not in themselves any guarantee of better lives in the countryside where most people live.

Sahelian governments face serious challenges to their credibility in outlying rural areas, where they struggle to provide public services, security and justice. In central Mali, jihadist groups step into the gap left where the state has faded away, if it was ever present.

Officially the G5 has recognised this: one of the key priorities agreed at its February 2021 summit in the Chadian capital Ndjamena was the need to reinvigorate development and core services. But it is uncertain whether all the member governments are serious about this agenda.

Afghanistan also highlighted the frailties that can flow from widespread corruption, which adds cost and frustration to the lives of citizens and undermines their faith in the state. Governments cannot expect rural populations to shun jihadists if state functionaries treat the rural population purely as a source of income.

However strong the security structures, and supporting foreign military presence, they cannot deliver stability if basic governance and material development fails.

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