Negotiations with Jihadists Are Already Occurring in Multiple Places in Mali

My brain is fried, so I’ll let a few data points speak mostly for themselves.

Le Drian, October 26:

Koro cercle, Mopti Region, July 2020:

In July, a new meeting was organized between the representatives of Mono Bemou and the jihadists, somewhere in a corner of the brush between the villages of Dinangourou and Dioungani. The jihadists set their conditions, extensive and onerous, to say the least: “They told us that no one, except them, could carry weapons. And that they only used these weapons for targeting the State. They also demanded that they be able to deliver sermons wherever it seemed good to them, and they forbade the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes…They did not forbid the republican school, but they demanded that the madrasas and instruction in Arabic be put in the forefront.” The last demand of the jihadists: “That no one revisit the question of who stole whose animals” in order to not “create other problems.”

Farabougou, Ségou Region, November 2020:

Many days ago, discussions were initiated with the jihadists. This mediation, conducted by local notables with the support of the army and the authorities, moved forward considerably at first. In particular, the intercommunal tensions preceding the jihadists’ actions had been resolved. But blockages appeared last week. Many sources within the mediation explain that at present, the jihadists demand, for lifting the siege, to collect the weapons of Farabougou’s traditional Dozo hunters. They also demand that sharia, as they conceive it, be applied. The discussions are thus more difficult, but they continue.

Not saying the dialogues/negotiations always work, or work at all. But they are happening, sometimes from the bottom up, sometimes from the top down, in different places in Mali. How could it be otherwise? What France wants, or says, only matters to some extent. And these are only some of the negotiations that are reported – imagine what goes unreported.

What Is Politics, Anyways? France’s Dead End in the Sahel

RAND’s Michael Shurkin has a new article out in the Texas National Security Review‘s Winter 2020/20201 issue called “France’s War in the Sahel and the Evolution of Counter-Insurgency Doctrine.” I strongly advise you read it in full – it’s excellent.

At the meta level, for a wild-eyed anti-intervention leftie like me to express skepticism about France’s Operation Barkhane is…not news. But when someone as even-handed and sober-minded as Shurkin is expressing doubts about Barkhane’s long-term prospects, I hope policymakers in Paris and Washington will really listen.

Shurkin writes,

The success of France’s operations depends on political changes that it refuses to impose itself, and frequently, its actions serve to perpetuate a political dispensation that is a principle driver of conflict. While aspiring to be apolitical and declining to meddle in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, France is, wittingly or not, profoundly affecting the political landscape. Moreover, when France does meddle, it risks undermining the host nation’s legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

Every French army officer and Foreign Affairs Ministry official will say that military action can lead to nothing outside of an appropriate political framework, and that security operations may be necessary but are never sufficient to foster an enduring peace. However, they do not know how to act politically without being political.

Here I want to build on what Shurkin writes – what is politics, anyways?

This is not just a problem for political theorists (or for academics scratching their heads over how to respond to Reviewer 2). Defining the sphere of the political and whether and how to act within it is a problem for anyone (everyone) who says, “This conflict has no purely military solution” (and everyone says that about every conflict nowadays, even people who secretly think there is a purely military solution). Once one starts grappling with these questions, you have problems on multiple levels right away, many of which Shurkin gets at directly and indirectly in the excerpt I quoted above. Here are a few problems, for starters:

  1. A foreign military intervention is, inherently, a political act, and the foreign presence constitutes a political actor whether or not the foreigners want it to be;
  2. The foreign presence affects and distorts the political field around it;
  3. Attempting to stay out of the sphere of “formal politics” (elections, and here we might even add coups, transitions, etc.) is itself a political act, and will be perceived and misperceived by plural audiences in diverse ways;
  4. As Shurkin writes elsewhere in the piece, “COIN, per French doctrine past and present, requires some form of political transformation to occur within the host nation, with the understanding that the status quo ante is what engendered the insurrection in the first place. However, post-colonial interventions have tended to restore the status quo ante and relieve problematic regimes from pressure to reform.”

That last quote from Shurkin gets to the problem of how external actors define the desired political end-state. For me, I think 21st-century Western policymakers often imagine political end-states in shockingly unrealistic and vague terms, anticipating not just the military defeat but also the political neutralization of insurgencies that clearly have remarkably staying power. I also think (and here Shurkin and many others may disagree with me) that Western policymakers talk a good game about democracy as a desired political end-state or even as a vehicle for reaching that end-state, but that in practice Western policymakers often consciously or unconsciously want to hand off responsibility to a strongman, an authoritarian. Although then at the same time it seems Western policymakers often want someone biddable and relatively weak-willed, which either leads to them selecting someone too weak to fulfill the strongman role, or someone who turns out to be much different than what they expected and then sows the seeds of renewed (or new) conflict. The most vivid depiction of that latter process I’ve read is Dexter FIlkins’ narration of the CIA’s and Zalmay Khalilzad’s selection of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister in 2006. That worked out poorly.

From what I understand of Malian politics, I don’t think France has tried to impose a strongman on Mali, and I don’t think France imposed Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta on Mali or saw Keïta as a potential strongman. The French are wise to avoid that blatant kind of political intervention. But I do think that it’s hard for these military interventions and counterinsurgencies to break with earlier models of doing politics in other people’s countries. Shurkin points out how the colonial model haunts contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine and practice – and you can’t really take doctrines applied in a context of anticipated long-term possession and occupation and translate them into a different context, I think. I would add that the Cold War model (“let’s find ‘our son of a bitch’ and put him in there for as long as possible”*) no longer seems viable in many places either, because of local pressures and international norms militating for some level of democracy. So, oftentimes, you can’t impose a strongman (nor do I think you should!!) – but if you don’t impose a strongman, what is the alternative?

I don’t know; maybe if the French could, they would clone Idriss Deby and put the clones in charge of Mali and Burkina Faso. But even if they could, you can’t just manufacture a Deby-like figure out of thin air and impose him – Deby has roots, networks, constituencies. So if you can’t possess the place, and if (as Shurkin points out repeatedly) you constantly signal that your presence is temporary, then the colonial model is out. And if you can’t or won’t impose a strongman (or if imposing a strongman is essentially rolling the dice, a la Maliki), then the Cold War template is out too.

And I don’t know that there really is a post-Cold War template. Because again, it’s still an exercise in trying to shape someone else’s politics. But now that effort at manipulation is so abstract and indirect that I think Western policymakers are sometimes in denial about the fact that they really are still attempting serious forms of manipulation, not all of which can be inherently and completely benevolent. So you’re left trying to provide security to give space for elections, for example, but the elections can’t be truly representative amid conflict, and the main contestants are mostly familiar faces with very limited popularity and appeal, many of whom are architects of the same status quo ante that Shurkin aptly points out is a cause of the conflict itself. Or you’re left in this very awkward dual role of killing the bad guys on the one hand and trying to act as the country’s coach on the other hand, saying, “This is how you run an army! This is how you try not to kill civilians! This is how you run a ministry!” But it doesn’t really work, and when it doesn’t work the Western policymakers and implementers let themselves off the hook by turning the concept of “governance” into a moral critique of African leaders and bureaucrats, and telling themselves the Africans “just don’t want it [peace] badly enough.” Again, I don’t think Shurkin will necessarily agree with my reasoning or my crude phrasing, but these are the implications I take from his piece and from the broader patterns that I see.

In short, maybe France can’t articulate a serious political strategy in Mali and the Sahel because there really isn’t one to be articulated. So you’re left saying “the return of the state” or “security-development nexus” for like 20 years, and then one day you go home.

*Yes, I know the possibly apocryphal quote was uttered in a pre-Cold War context, but still.

Chad: Authoritarianism, Counterterrorism, and International Silence – Comments on Two Pieces at Just Security

Just Security has published two pieces on Chad, with complementary content, this month:

  • Olivier Guiryanan, “Counterterrorism Assistance to Chad for the Sahel: The Price the People Pay,” September 2.
  • Eugène Le-Yotha Ngartebaye, “Chad’s Counterterrorism Support Abroad Drives Repression and Discontent at Home,” September 10.

The titles indicate the arguments the piece make – arguments that resonate with me and that others have made, at varying lengths and applied to both Chad and other Sahelien countries, before.

Here is Guiryanan’s conclusion, one of the strongest parts of his article:

As long as Chad’s security forces have easy access to a global armory with zero accountability to their citizens, they will have little interest in developing a sustainable security architecture that is shaped by Chadians and capable of resolving community grievances, investigating and punishing abuses, and preventing violent conflict. With a turbulent history, neighbors in turmoil, and a population tired of economic inequality and repression, the costs of staying the course could be dangerously high.

And here is a good excerpt from Ngartebaye’s piece:

Despite this diplomatic boost for Chad’s government [from external military deployments] and certain, though limited, economic benefits from the military aid and foreign missions, Chad’s citizens have found their country’s regional involvement significantly less rewarding. The government, fearful of reprisals by groups similar to or allied with the armed groups that its military has been fighting abroad, has cracked down on a wide and seemingly arbitrary range of civic freedoms, including the right to beg, hold public demonstrations, wear the burqa and the turban (based on the rationale that both sometimes hide people’s faces). In April this year, the government finally amended the country’s draconian anti-terror law to remove the death penalty for terrorism-related charges, after domestic and international criticism when 44 alleged members of Boko Haram died in pre-trial detention in the country’s capital.

I recommend both pieces, although they would have benefited from more careful editing. There are a few mistakes (about the number of troops Chad contributed to France’s Operation Serval, for example) as well as various statements that are inauspiciously phrased and could be read as mistakes. So they make for a great overview but if you’re not well-versed in the details, just be a bit cautious.

I have three more substantive comments, revolving around a single premise (of mine, not the authors’): international actors do not care about making Chad more democratic or making the Chadian state more interested in human rights.

Here are my comments, then:

  1. Guiryanan has some really interesting ideas about how Chad’s donors could insist that Chadian authorities empower civil society organizations as watchdogs over security spending and human rights issues. That makes sense to me – although I’m not sure Chad’s donors are interested in that; I think some donors, including the U.S. and France, are comfortable with the current, unstated bargains, and have been happy with those bargains for quite some time now. Guiryanan devastatingly diagnoses, moreover, how donors tend to treat civil society in Chad (with remarks that apply elsewhere in the region too): “Civil society is too often restricted to being passive pawns in donor-funded security projects and workshops encouraging ‘social cohesion’ and improved military-civilian relations. Rather than hold the military and government accountable, their presence is used to legit[i]mize the military and lend tacit support.” I don’t see that pattern changing any time soon, but I am glad that Guiryanan and Just Security are doing what they can to up the pressure.
  2. Ngartebaye also has recommendations for international actors. The most actionable recommendation is that the United Nations should take over paying the salaries of Chadian soldiers deployed as peacekeepers in Mali. His other suggestions – that “international assistance should be redirected to real internal reforms” and that “the complicit silence adopted by Chad’s partners should be replaced by a frank dialogue on human rights issues in Chad” – get to the core of the problem. But again, I think that international silence comes out of international actors’ basic comfort with the status quo. I doubt that your average senior State Department official or National Security Council director spends too much time worrying about the status of Chadian democracy. It’s clear that powerful international actors hold potential levers over Chad – but who holds levers over those actors when it comes to Chad?
  3. One of the most notable aspects of Chadian politics is when and how pushback against President Idriss Deby arises, especially when pushback succeeds. In fact, if Chadian politics is “who gets to be head of state,” then there is no Chadian politics; but if Chadian politics is “what power struggles play out within the existing system,” then there is a real politics within the country. Both authors point to examples of this – Guiryanan, for example, writes, “In recent years, public sector workers and students have become a powerful force on the streets, as they fought to reverse cuts to state allowances and aid.” (See also the really interesting episode of a regional governor being fired in 2018 over abuses.) Ngartebaye, meanwhile, astutely advises international actors to increase the potential for give-and-take within the system; he writes that donors should stipulate “that citizens can freely choose their local leaders (governors, mayors, and members of Parliament) through free and transparent elections.” Chad is not a totalitarian dictatorship (the state is too weak for that, if “totalitarianism” is even possible in the first place), and there would be ways of making the country even less authoritarian. Again, though, international donors seem uninterested in using those levers.

Roundup of Thoughtful Commentary on Mali’s Coup

A lot of garbage has been written about Mali’s coup. Here are some pieces, though, that I find good and thoughtful. I’ll add the obvious disclaimer that I don’t agree with every word of every piece, and in some cases I disagree with the thrust of the piece as a whole, but nevertheless what follows is some of the best writing I’ve seen on the coup:

  • Ibrahim Maïga interviewed by L’Essor, “Le problème du Mali va au-delà d’IBK” [“Mali’s Problem Goes Beyond IBK”] August 25. One point Maïga makes, which I don’t think non-Malian analysts (including me) have made enough, is that it was not just the M5-RFP protest movement but also strikes in the health, justice, and education sectors that the president was in real trouble.
  • Niagalé Bagayoko interviewed by France24, “Au Mali, une junte militaire qui ‘connaît les normes internationales et sait les utiliser'” [“In Mali, A Military Junta That ‘Knows International Norms and How to Use Them’.”] August 28. One crucial point Bagayoko makes is that the junta, by claiming they are acting on behalf of a “popular revolution” rather than carrying out a coup, implicitly highlight the ways in which (a) not all leaders with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are themselves champions of supposed regional and international norms, and (b) not all ECOWAS leaders may themselves enjoy strong  popular support at present.
  • Alain Nyamitwe, “Mali’s Unconstitutional Change of Government: Rules Are Made for the People,” The Elephant, August 28. Nyamitwe, a former Burundian minister of foreign affairs, discusses a wide range of coups, revolutions, and third term bids and also discusses how norms and practices are evolving. His conclusion: “Sanctions in the form of an embargo only punish the masses. In the current global context of COVID-19, an embargo on Mali would only contribute to worsening an economic situation which is already difficult to say the least. The legitimate grievances of the people of Mali must come before the interests of regional and international actors. It is our hope that the next ECOWAS Summit will “rewrite the script” on Mali. The ECOWAS mediator in Mali, former president of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan, continues efforts on the ground where even other international actors are meeting the “colonels”, the new big boys in town. In all these efforts, people should come first. It’s all about them.”
  • Rémi Carayol, “Mali. Le coup d’État marque la fin des illusions françaises” [“Mali: The Coup d’État Marks the End of French Illusions”] OrientXXI, August 28. The title’s prediction is almost certainly wrong! But the content is good – a look at how the failures leading to the coup came from the Malian political class and from France, and perhaps most of all from the relationship between the two as represented in the person of IBK – at first, according to Carayol, the favored candidate of France in 2013; and then, by 2018, someone who had lost France’s confidence but whose corrupt tendencies and problematic re-election drew no real criticism from France. 
  • Gilles Yabi, “Organiser des élections le plus vite possible au Mali serait une grave erreur” [“Organizing Elections As Fast As Possible in Mali Would Be a Serious Mistake”] Jeune Afrique, August 25. Yabi’s suggestions are quite sensible – creating broadly acceptable transitional structures, drawing up a clear roadmap for the transition, adopting a “realistic calendar,” and insisting on the personal integrity of senior office-holders – but I wish he would have been more specific about who exactly is supposed to make sure that all that happens.
  • Peter Tinti, Raouf Farrah, and Matt Herbert, “Crime After Mali’s Coup: Business As Usual?” Global Initiative, August 31. An excerpt: “One high-level official arrested by the CNSP shortly after the coup was General Moussa Diawara, who led Mali’s main intelligence directorate. According to a United Nations Security Council report, Diawara provided protection and promises of impunity to traffickers from the Lamhar Arab community in exchange for payments from Mohamed Ould Mataly, a representative in Mali’s national assembly. Ould Mataly has long been tied to drug trafficking, including via his son-in-law, Mohamed Ben Ahmed Mahri, one of the most well-known drug traffickers in the Sahel. It is unclear what other arrests or resignations will follow in the coming weeks. However, there is little indication that these arrests or Keïta’s removal from power will diminish the role and power of patronage networks within Mali’s political and security establishment, nor impact criminal networks’ exploitation of them.”
  • Michel Goya, “Quand t’es dans le désert” [“When You Are in the Desert”], La voie de l’épée, August 24. From the conclusion: “With raids and strikes, Barkhane whacks and waits. At the price of the loss of a soldier every two months on average, and at the cost of a million euros per enemy combatant eliminated, we have waited for seven years for Mali to stop being inert, for a real force coming from who knows where to offer to relieve us, or for an extraordinary change to shake up everything.” I’m not really a fan of this imagery of an “inert” Mali – the thread running this and so much other commentary is that ultimately, everything is the Malians’ fault for not having the will to solve their own problems, and I don’t agree with that – but I think the piece captures very well how French thinking and operations have evolved, and not evolved, in Mali.

Could Mali’s Coup Have Been Avoided? Part Two – The International Community’s Mistakes

Amid the continued fallout from the August 18 coup in Mali I, like others, have been thinking about whether all this was inevitable. What could have gone differently between the previous coup in 2012, and this coup? Yesterday, in part one, I looked at ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and what I consider general flaws in his overall approach as well as specific mistakes he made.

Today, in part two, I look at the international community,* again considering what I see as both macro flaws and concrete turning points. In my view, these trends and events made a coup more likely by inadvertently fueling conflict and by making Mali more difficult to govern. I think the coup resulted from a confluence of factors, but I think that examining the interaction between IBK’s mistakes, the recurring patterns in Malian politics, and the approach of international actors toward conflict management in post-2012 Mali is a crucial starting point for understanding what happened.

As before, these are non-exhaustive lists – and there is quite a lot of room for debate. I imagine some readers who agreed with most of what I wrote about IBK will agree with very little of what I write below.

Even before discussing the macro flaws, I think there is an overall problem, namely that it is extremely difficult to escape a certain conceptual prison. The approach followed by international actors, with France in the leading role, has been: “Hunt and kill the bad guys, make a show of implementing the 2015 Algiers Accord, hold presidential elections at mandated intervals, and say platitudes about ‘good governance’ and ‘the return of the state’.” More on this below, but the point I want to up front first is that it’s very difficult – including for me – to imagine genuine alternatives to this overall approach. Even some of the seemingly out-of-the-box ideas that have been floated in recent years, like negotiating with jihadists or replacing the Algiers Accord with something else, ultimately represent only modest adjustments to hegemonic assumptions about how all this has to go: kill, haggle, vote. It is difficult to imagine other paths that international actors might have followed in the period 2012-2020, but there must be alternatives out there that could have helped prevent this coup.

Moving to the next level of analysis, here are what I think are some deeply problematic features of the international community’s approach:

  • There is a circularity built into the way international actors talk about the relationship between political stability and counterterrorism. Is counterterrorism a means to make politics more stable? Or do politics need to be stable so as not to disrupt counterterrorism? Which is the higher priority and why? And what message does ambiguity on this point send?
  • What does counterterrorism really mean? Let’s say it means killing people who wave black flags, because we deem their politics unacceptable and we think that the more power they get, the more likely they are to try to attack Europe and the United States. But then why does a Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission target conventional rebels (in Chad, February 2019)? And if the black flag-waving jihadists are not actually the ones responsible for the most killings, why does other non-state actors’ violence not count as terrorism? Killing 160 villagers is not terrorism? The likely authors of that massacre get to (got to) have a deputy in the Malian parliament? What message are ordinary people supposed to take from all this? And then counterterrorism or perhaps “counterinsurgency” success is ultimately supposed to depend on buy-in from those same audiences of ordinary people? What if they don’t share the international community’s definition of who is a terrorist? What if counterterrorism is making things worse in Mali, not better?
  • In Sahelian politics more broadly, there seem to be just two non-negotiable rules that all actors adhere to: there must be an elected president as head of state, and the guys (currently) holding black flags can’t sit at the peace talks. Everything else is up for negotiation. You took power in a rebellion in 1990 and you want to win every presidential election from 1996 until 2033? Have at it. You’re running for re-election and you want to keep your opponent, whom you have accused of being a child trafficker, in jail throughout the campaign? Go ahead. You led a coup against the only democratically elected civilian president your country ever had, and now you want to run and win as a civilian? Here’s ten years in power for you. You got re-elected in a presidential election where violence forced the closures of over 700 polling places in a single region, and in which armed non-state actors (whose leaders are also members of your party) helped provide security in several other regions, where you ended up winning massive majorities? Cool. You used to be a jihadist and now you’re a parliamentary deputy? You’re under UN sanctions and you want to be a deputy? No problem. And on and on. What message is sent by all that? The message is that the international community’s talk about “good governance” is mostly bullshit. And it is no wonder that politicians sometimes take actions that prove to be reckless, or that politicians occasionally ignore pushback from the streets until it is too late; they get so used to relative immunity to political consequences that they seem to sometimes forget that there can be blowback to their decisions.
  • Nobody really defines what the international community wants the political end-state to look like or why the international community gets to have much of a say at all. “Good governance” is code for saying that if only everyone tried a little harder and cleaned up their act, Mali could have nice things. Saying “the return of the state” never confronts the ways in which the state itself was and is part of the problem in many areas – corrupt judges, abusive soldiers, etc. Saying that France needs a “political strategy” in Mali becomes, in its vagueness, a way of dodging all the ugly questions: What does it mean for one country to have a strategy for another country’s politics? How far is the international community supposed to go in dictating what Mali’s politics look like? And how must all this feel to Sahelien soldiers – dictated and condescended to by outsiders, let down by their own political leaders, feeling caught in an interminable conflict?
  • The international community only adds to its security deployments, it never cuts them or really assesses them or even replaces them. MINUSMA and Barkhane aren’t enough? Add the European Union Training Mission. Add the G5 Sahel Joint Force. That’s not working either? Add the Coalition for the Sahel. Add Takuba. And after the dust settles from this coup, how many of these missions will be rethought, let alone wrapped up? My prediction: zero. How many of the Western diplomats and military officers shaking their heads over IBK’s blunders would really want a mirror held up to their own institutions’ performance in Mali? These deployments did not trigger the coup, but the tendency to just keep adding external missions has become a replacement for thinking about alternatives – and outside pressure can fuel security force abuses, which in turn exacerbates instability and further complicates the position in which soldiers find themselves. Assume for a second that you were a deeply frustrated but well-meaning** Malian colonel: you can’t kick out the foreigners, you can’t win the war against multiple elusive enemies. Who’s the logical target if you want to change something big?

And here are what I think are some specific mistakes and turning points. Some of them are directly and obviously connected to the coup against IBK, whereas others, in my view, indirectly helped set the stage for the putsch.

  1. Whatever happened in Kidal between France, the Tuareg-led separatists, and the ex-jihadists (circa February 2013). I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it seems France contributed, by design or by accident, to what evolved into a de facto partition of Mali.
  2. The creation of Operation Barkhane (summer 2014): I think having a standing counterterrorism mission for the whole Sahel sent the wrong message and created some bad incentives – now every major Barkhane decapitation strike is greeted as a potential turning point for the conflict (it never is), even as mistrust of Barkhane among ordinary Sahelians seems to grow. I don’t see why individual strikes against jihadist leaders couldn’t be conducted without this kind of essentially permanent structure. Maybe now is time to think about wrapping up Barkhane, or even wrapping up everything other than MINUSMA (spoiler: won’t happen).
  3. Allowing the Algiers Accord to replicate past accords (spring/summer 2015): You can read extended analyses of this problem here and here. In brief, though, recycling old ideas and empowering mostly familiar actors helped to create incentives for the implementation to become a desirable end-state in and of itself for some of those actors, while at the same time excluding considerable swaths of the northern population from key decisions.
  4. Not taking the crisis in central Mali seriously until it was too late (2015 on). For example, it was not until 2019 that MINUSMA was given a second strategic priority (in addition to the first priority, supporting implementation of the Algiers Accord) to help stabilize and restore state authority in the center.
  5. Not responding more forcefully to credible allegations of widespread security force abuses against civilians (2015 on). The beginnings of the cycle wherein these abuses would fuel conflict were already visible by mid-2015.
  6. Publicly rejecting the idea of dialogue with jihadists following the Conference of National Understanding (April 2017). French dismissals of the idea, which came out of Malian civil society, came across as arrogant and peremptory. The French antipathy to the idea seems to have undercut some momentum toward dialogue on the part of civil society and elder statesmen in 2017 while reinforcing a tendency for the Malian government’s own efforts at dialogue to stay opaque and halting.
  7. Partnering with northern militias against the Islamic State (early 2018). Such collaboration between Barkhane, MSA, and GATIA, simply sent the wrong message to the Malian state, other militias, and ordinary people.
  8. Accepting the results of the 2018 presidential election without qualification (August 2018). As I alluded to above, there was so much violence in the Mopti Region that I would argue that no election worthy of the name occurred there. And that was just one problem. The response should not have necessarily been to say “IBK must go” or “IBK isn’t legitimate” but to simply say “sure, that was fine, let’s move on” sent, again, the wrong message.
  9. Accepting the revised results of the 2020 legislative election (April 2020). Again, I think international actors could have done more to convey that they actually did care about deep flaws in the election process and outcome. Here it might have been worthwhile to publicly reject the Constitutional Court’s revised results and to say that the initial results from the Ministry of Territorial Administration should stand.
  10. Treating the M5-RFP protests with contempt (June-July 2020). I don’t think international actors listened or really wanted to listen to what the anti-IBK protesters were saying this summer. And many actors’ contempt for protest leaders, particularly for Imam Mahmoud Dicko, was clear in the French press and elsewhere. And when West African leaders tried to mediate, the message was essentially, “Take the Ministry of Sports and the Ministry of Tourism in the unity government, and pick a few judges for the new Constitutional Court, and then go home.” I’m not saying the international community should have tried to shove IBK aside, but they could have tried a more open-ended process than simply arriving in Bamako and dictating “you get this, this, and this, and you better like it” and then being shot down.

Brief Conclusion

A depressing but quite likely outcome of this coup would be a return to the status quo ante, but with a new president at Koulouba. If you measure success in Mali in terms of stability, then the international community’s approach has been failing since at least 2015, clearly failing since violence began dramatically escalating in 2017, and absolutely failing now that this coup has happened. But that doesn’t mean the assumptions, the policies, or the players will change.

*”International community” is a garbage euphemism, of course, though sometimes I feel stuck with it. What I mean here is France, the United Nations Security Council, the  Economic Community of West African States and its members, the European Union and its members, and the United States, in roughly that order.

**Not saying the new junta (the CNSP) is necessarily well-meaning.

A Critical Reading of an Interview with Operation Barkhane’s General Cyril Carcy

When writing yesterday’s post on the Franco-Sahelien security summit in Nouakchott, I spent some time looking at sources from France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane, as part of my attempt to assess what military progress French forces have really made in the Sahel. One item I found was this interview with Barkhane’s General Cyril Carcy, Deputy for Operations. I’d like to discuss a few misconceptions – or outright errors, in my view – that appear in Carcy’s responses.

First, Carcy appears to have a somewhat strange understanding of the two main jihadist formations in the Sahel, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. One odd thing is the translation and acronym for JNIM that Carcy uses. The standard translation, in both English and French, is “the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims.” In French this is usually rendered Groupe de soutien à l’islam et aux musulmans or Groupe pour le soutien de l’islam et des musulmans (in either case, abbreviated GSIM). Carcy, however, calls JNIM the “Rassemblement pour la victoire de l’Islam et des musulmans (RVIM),” which I would translate as “Assembly for the Victory of Islam and Muslims.” Leaving the issue of “assembly” versus “group” aside, I think that translating the Arabic “nusra” as “support” or “aid” is better than translating it as “victory,” and this nuance can matter for how you understand JNIM’s self-presentation. The translator who supplied this phrase to Carcy may have been working from the Arabic version of JNIM that one sometimes sees, namely Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin, where you could translate “nasr” as “victory” (although you could also translate it as “help/support.” But in official JNIM releases I’ve typically seen “nusra” instead of “nasr.” It’s not a big deal, I suppose, but it’s just an odd note at the beginning of the interview, given how widespread the GSIM acronym and the attendant translation are in Francophone media.

More substantively, Carcy has an understanding of JNIM that is both highly al-Qaida-centric and oddly ethnicized. He says the following:

The face of Al Qaida is manifested through the Assembly for the Victory of Islam and Muslims (RVIM) created March 1st 2017 by Iyad Ag Ghali. It is an identitarian model aiming to safeguard a way of life, fairly close to that of the Tuareg, but also aiming to preserve a space allowing itself to engage in the worst forms of trafficking.

The remark about trafficking captures something of the situation, but Carcy’s casual mention of trafficking obscures wider dynamics. As Crisis Group has written, the implication of drug traffickers in northern Mali is wide-ranging and complex:

Major traffickers maintain relations with both Malian authorities – which the latter denies – and political and military groups in the north; indeed often trafficking networks are embedded in, or overlap with, those groups, who themselves depend on trafficking to finance their operations and to buy weapons. That said, ties between armed groups and traffickers are not trouble-free: they do not always share the same interests. Rivalries among trafficking networks sometimes provoke confrontation between armed groups that those groups would prefer to avoid.

Meanwhile, Carcy’s remarks about “an identitarian model aiming to safeguard a way of life” are basically wrong, I would say. In my view JNIM is a complex coalition. On one level, JNIM is a vehicle for the political ambitions of Iyad ag Ghali, which are related to the preservation and expansion of his own position within northern Malian politics and the politics of the entire region. Even though ag Ghali hails from a “noble” clan within the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation and even though he has frequently shown those aristocratic colors in his political maneuvering, he has also proven repeatedly disruptive to hierarchies and political settlements in northern Mali and beyond. Ag Ghali is not the avatar of tradition against modernity or whatever. On another level, JNIM is the latest focal point for hardline jihadists in the region, who may have substantially affected ag Ghali’s worldview and identity, but are also not themselves fundamentally seeking to “safeguard a way of life” connected to the Tuareg (or the Arabs or the Peul). Finally, as that parenthetical indicates, JNIM is not – in my understanding – a Tuareg ethnic formation even if though is led by a prominent Tuareg politician. Ironically, when and where JNIM is accused of serving an ethnic agenda, it is accused of serving a Peul ethnic agenda in the center of Mali – and that accusation, too, is off base. In central Mali, to compress a lot of research (mostly by others!) into one sentence, JNIM has championed the interests of particular segments of society, including Peul shepherds against both Peul oligarchs and Dogon farmers. But JNIM is not trying to rewind the clock of history or to stave off historical change. Rather, JNIM seeks to be an agent of radical change not just in military facts on the ground but in intra-communal and inter-communal relations in the Mopti Region of Mali and elsewhere.

Carcy’s understanding of ISGS is also off base, I would say. Here is his framing:

ISGS is an internationalist model founded upon a millenarian ideology…Composed of young people who have turned toward jihadism for lack of social prospects, ISGS seeks to extend its zone of predation in order to increase its recruiting ground, as well as its financing through zakat [Islamic tithe].

Why is JNIM an “identitarian model” while ISGS is an “internationalist model”? If JNIM is recruiting down-and-out youth, what’s necessarily “internationalist” about that? And it is true that the Islamic State’s central leadership has been rhetorically millenarian – but is that true for ISGS? I haven’t seen much end-of-the-world talk in their statements. And is it true that most of their financing is through “zakat”? I wonder what kinds of intelligence briefings Carcy and other top Barkhane commanders are getting, and where the underlying information comes from, and how much French officials’ ideological blinders are shaping how they perceive the ideologies and functioning of these jihadist groups.

For another perspective, here it’s worth citing another Crisis Group report (.pdf, p. 1), this one on ISGS in the Tillabéri region of Niger:

In northern Tillabery, as elsewhere in the Sahel, an excessive focus on counterterrorism has however resulted in the overuse of military tools for a conflict that is fundamentally driven by inter- and intra-communal competition over rights and resources, which the Islamic State has exploited. Counter-terrorism strategies seeking to weaken jihadist groups are neither illegitimate nor unfounded, but the way they have been conducted in Niger has often enflamed the situations they seek to calm. These strategies have, for example, accelerated the militarisation of border communities and fuelled the stigmatisation of members of the Peul nomadic group, whom other local communities often regard as the Islamic State’s closest collaborators on the ground. They have also led to killings of civilians who are accused of being or are mistaken for Islamic State elements. As Niamey mounts a new counter-terrorism push in response to the surging violence along the border, local communities in northern Tillabery are already alleging that military operations have caused scores of civilian deaths.

Another strange thing about Carcy’s comments is that his framing concerning jihadist groups seems to shift from answer to answer. In the response I discussed above, JNIM is “identitarian” and ISGS is “millenarian”; in another response, without naming either group, Carcy says that the region’s jihadists were “identitarian” in 2014 when Barkhane began, but now Barkhane “must reduce a franchise that makes no demand, seeking simply to increase its zone of predation against a population already afflicted by poverty.” Which is it? And is it true that JNIM makes no coherent demands? I’m pretty sure it does – one of those demands, of course, is that France leave. Barkhane might not like that, but you can’t say it’s not clear.

Carcy, like other French officials, is also vague on another critical point – the “return of the state” and “development,” the third and fourth pillars of the Coalition for the Sahel and of the outcomes from France’s Pau summit back in January. On the one hand, it makes sense that a military commander would have more to say about the first two pillars of the Coalition, namely counterterrorism and military capacity. But Carcy’s comments toward the end of the interview, about Barkhane’s “support for political efforts for stabilization and development,” are thin. He concludes the interview by saying, “The objective is to prove to the population that there is an alternative to the terrorist system, which is a totalitarian model founded on terror.” And here we’re back to the same contradictions and outright incoherence – if jihadism offers an “identitarian model” that protects ways of life or offers protection and prospects to down-and-out youth, then how can it be a “totalitarian model founded on terror”?

I’m not sure that French officials really have a fleshed-out version of what “the return of the state” really means. Turning from military officials to the civilian side, French President Emmanuel Macron said the following at the Nouakchott summit:

Macron said that “it is the prefects, magistrates, police officers, and judges who will permit us to truly turn the situation around.”

This is slightly more detailed than what one hears from Barkhane commanders, of course, but it’s still basically a cliche, and one that gives no sense that France has a theory of change about how exactly these civilian authorities will “return” to the conflict zones. Moreover, French officials seem to not understand the fact that civilian authorities’ behavior (the “rackets” that Adam Thiam and others have written so carefully about) in certain zones – the behavior of those same prefects, magistrates, police officers, and judges – was a crucial factor in setting the stage for the present conflict.

Finally, Macron’s remarks about the “return of the state” are effectively undercut, I think, by rhetoric like this:

“We only have one enemy in the Sahel: Islamist terrorism.”

Rida Lyammouri responds better than I could:

And again, you see the problems not just with Macron’s remarks but with Carcy’s – what is France really doing in the Sahel? Fighting “totalitarianism” and “millenarianism,” in other words fanatics? Or trying to maneuver in an extraordinarily complicated political context where ordinary fighters have multi-faceted motivations for aligning themselves with various armed groups? The conceptual framework that Macron, Carcy, and others are using is both simplistic and self-contradictory, and one wonders how any effective policy can be founded upon such a framework.

Logistical Details and (Competing?) Accounts of the Droukdel Strike

On June 3, the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, was apparently killed in northern Mali. I have written here about his presumed death, and I gave some background on his career here. In this post I want to discuss some of the emerging conversation about how he was tracked and (again, presumably) killed.

The original announcement of Droukdel’s death, an announcement made on June 5, came from French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly, who said merely, “On June 3, the French Armed Forces, with the support of their partners, neutralized the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdal and many of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali.”

Press coverage of the operation placed the strike’s location at “the Ourdjane wadi (river bed), two kilometers south of the village of Talhandak, in the immense desert expanse of the great Malian north. Situated 80 kilometers east of Tessalit as the crow flies and 20 kilometers south of the Algerian border, the wadi was the site of ‘a meeting’ between leaders of AQIM, according to a local source interviewed by AFP.”

Details are emerging about the American role, which may have been substantial. In a June 8 statement, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said, “As a partner in this French-led mission, and as an example of our continued cooperation and partnership to counter a common threat, U.S. Africa Command provided intelligence and Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance support” for the operation.

The American role may have gone beyond intelligence and surveillance, however. Le Figaro‘s Georges Malbrunot, in a Twitter thread starting here, cites an anonymous diplomat without giving his/her nationality. According to this source, the U.S. identified Droukdel’s voice and located him when Droukdel placed a phone call, and then turned that information over to the French. According to the same source, an American drone fired the first shots at Droukdel’s convoy, lighting the way for French helicopters that then destroyed the convoy. French commandos then collected DNA samples, which were matched (in Paris) with DNA samples from Droukdel’s family collected by the Algerian authorities. (It’s kind of wild to me that Droukdel would talk on the phone – one would have assumed he would know better.)

Malbrunot refers to a convoy – but was there only one vehicle on the ground?

Malbrunot uses the first image as well; perhaps there was only one vehicle, or perhaps the vehicles in the convoy were spread out and the others are simply not visible in that first image. Another question I have is whether these images contradict the idea that the convoy was destroyed from the air.

The role of Algeria has also been a subject of intense discussion. Geoff Porter, who travels frequently to Algeria and has deep connections there, included in his analysis the following blunt sentences:

It is likely that Algeria always knew where Droukdel was and it is equally likely that Algeria allowed Droukdel to travel south from northeastern Algeria across the border into Mali. (This appears to be an extension of a strategy that Algeria embraced in the 2009-2011 timeframe – namely, solving Algeria’s terrorism problem by allowing terrorists to leave the country. You don’t have to quit jihad, but you can’t jihad here.) It was more convenient and more valuable for Algeria to allow France to eliminate Droukdel once he had quit Algerian territory: Algeria accrues ample diplomatic capital in Paris and Washington by delivering Droukdel, but it avoids both having to undertake the mission itself or permit a foreign military to operate within Algerian territory (VERBOTEN!) . It’s a win-win for Algiers: Droukdel is gone, Algerian sovereignty remains uncompromised, and Operation Barkhane and AFRICOM can chalk up an HVT [High Value Target] kill.

The paragraph is unsourced, or to put it differently, Porter is the source. I have long found his analysis extremely compelling and reliable, but obviously these are major claims and various major implications follow from them – your mileage may vary.

Relatedly, the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu offers a series of questions about Droukdel’s seeming ability to traverse Algerian territory, Algerian official silence on his death, and what this may reveal about other jihadists’ relationships with Algeria:

Algerian officials’ silence regarding Droukdel’s death rekindles questions about the protection enjoyed by the Malian Iyad ag Ghali, the Sahel’s most powerful jihadist, leader since 2017 of the coalition “Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims,” itself affiliated to al-Qaida. In a very well-document July 2018 investigation, Le Monde revealed that ag Ghali had sometimes sheltered in Algerian territory,  whether with his family in Tin Zaouatine, or in a hospital in Tamanrasset (where he had, for that matter, escaped a Western attempt at “neutralization”). Such facilities, which are necessarily impossible to admit, relate to a non-aggression pact and have effectively allowed for protecting the Algerian Sahara from jihadist attacks. More broadly, the Algerian authorities, who had failed in 2012 to sponsor an accord between ag Ghali and Bamako, are counting this time on a successful mediation in northern Mali, even if it means legitimizing the jihadist groups.

These, too, are very strong claims about Algeria’s role in all this. I have heard similar perspectives in Bamako, but verifying this is – at least for me – difficult. And the implications sort of boggle the mind, if you play it all out. If you start to assume that the Algerians protect ag Ghali and that France knows that and that France is pursuing a counterterrorism mission in northern Mali that is effectively bounded by rules set by Algeria, and and and…The train of thought can take you to some very dark places, actually, which is maybe why I personally don’t often follow it (or perhaps that’s a cop-out on my part).

Finally, it is striking, or perhaps not so striking, that the key actors discussed in the coverage are all non-Malian: that is, the Malian state appears to have played no appreciable role in the strike, and neither did the vaunted G5 Sahel Joint Force. I have not even read any references so far as to whether the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), the de facto authority in the Kidal Region (where the strike occurred) had any role whatsoever in the raid. When the chips are down and a “high value target” is at stake, it appears clear that Paris (and Washington) regard Bamako as a junior partner.

France’s Coalition for the Sahel Gets Going

On January 13 of this year, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Sahelian heads of state for a summit in Pau, France. Among the outcomes of the summit was the announcement of a new “Coalition for the Sahel,” which will focus on four “pillars”: counterterrorism, military capacity-building, supporting the return of the state, and development. The Coalition is meant to coordinate existing activities, with France and the G5 Sahel as it primary members. A major question is whether the Coalition is merely a rebranding of pre-existing elements, or whether it will represent something genuinely new.

On June 12, the Coalition for the Sahel held its first (virtual) meeting. This ministerial-level meeting was hosted jointly by Mauritanian Foreign Affairs Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed (Mauritania holds the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel for 2020), European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell Fontelles, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The “informal conclusions” can be found here (English) and here (French). My read is that the meeting was mostly a stock-taking, a review of initiatives currently underway such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force, France’s Sahel Alliance, France’s Takuba Task Force, etc. You can read a French government English-language explainer on the G5 Sahel and the Sahel Alliance here, and an Al Jazeera report on the Takuba Task Force here.

My usage of “France’s this” and “France’s that” could be debated, but I do it deliberately. The rhetoric of “coalition” and “alliance” is deliberate on France’s part, meant to imply a collective stake in the Sahel crisis, but to me the vibe is one of top-down French influence, and I can’t tell what level of buy-in there is from Sahelian heads of state. Notably, for example, I could not find mention of the Coalition in the final communiqué from the last G5 Sahel summit, held in Nouakchott in February. And here is Reuters, also describing France as the driving force and discussing the Coalition in terms of French government goals:

France launched a coalition of West African and European allies on Friday to fight jihadi militants in the Sahel region, hoping more political cooperation and special forces would boost a military effort that has so far failed to stifle violence.

I don’t think that’s going to pan out. The different components of the Coalition have already been struggling to reverse some of the worst trends in the Sahel, and I don’t think coordination is the most important missing element. The criticism leveled at the French government after the Pau summit, namely that France lacks a genuine political strategy, still holds. And the Pau summit may have even inadvertently upped the pressure for Sahelian soldiers to commit abuses against civilians, abuses that are themselves a key driver of insurgency.

In any event, the Coalition’s official description can be found here, along with various resources. France’s Envoy for the Sahel, Christophe Bigot, is on Twitter here, as is the Coalition itself.

In terms of what comes next, I’m not sure – readers may know. The next G5 Sahel summit is scheduled for February 2021 in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, but I suspect we will hear from the Coalition before then.

War on the Rocks Piece About France, Mali, and JNIM

I have a piece at War on the Rocks today arguing that France should reduce counterterrorism operations and manhunts in Mali in order to give more space to a potential dialogue between the Malian government and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). As always, readers’ comments would be welcome.

Chad: Notes on Ben Taub’s Recent New Yorker Piece

I like the journalist Ben Taub’s work a lot, and there is much to like in his latest, on rebellions in Chad, for the New Yorker. Taub gets into the politics of the recent rebel advance – and the French airstrikes that followed – in northern Chad, developments I have covered a bit here.

The central argument of Taub’s piece is one that I agree with, and that I rarely see stated so bluntly in the American media: propping up dictators is bad.

After decades of supporting Sahelian strongmen, and turning a blind eye to their abuses, Western countries have been unable to devise any regional strategy except one that conflates the strength of a regime with the stability of a country, and which brings about neither stability nor strength.

Taub falls into the occasional cliché – “jihadi groups thrive in the margins of broken states” – but he also sees through the current rhetoric about “terrorism” coming from both Chad and France. What follows that line about “broken states,” for example, is very good:

and, where there are no terrorists, [Chadian President Idriss] Déby has seen it as politically advantageous to fabricate them. In the aftermath of the French air strikes, his forces arrested some two hundred and fifty rebels and announced that they would be tried as “terrorists,” without the veneer of judicial protections typically afforded to criminals, traitors, or whatever category would normally apply to political opponents and army defectors who have attempted a coup. The designation is convenient for France, too; the legal mandate for Operation Barkhane is counterterrorism, not killing men who have had enough of Déby’s rule. But the facts are being obscured amid staged cries of victory.

Taub goes on to make some very grim predictions:

Absent radical changes in local Sahelian governance and priorities, no humanitarian crisis in Africa’s recent history will compare to the hell to come. What is likely doesn’t have to be inevitable. The question for Western governments is whether they will be complicit in its acceleration.

There are huge questions to ponder here. Is demography destiny in the Sahel? Is the most likely future one of brittle (or collapsing) regimes, with popular desires for change channeled largely or solely into violence? Will the Sahel of 2050 be the frontline of climate apocalypse? There is definitely good reason to think so. But in addition to highlighting the agency of Western governments, one should also keep in mind the agency of Sahelians themselves. Multiple futures are possible for the region, and who knows – maybe increasing crisis and fragility will elicit not just chaos but also creativity.