Piece on Mali and the Wagner Group for Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft

Along with nine colleagues, I’ve joined the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft as a Non-Resident Fellow, which is a real honor – Quincy is doing a lot to advance alternative and less militaristic thinking in U.S. foreign policy. As part of this new role, I’ll be contributing from time to time to their online magazine, Responsible Statecraft, where I’ve written a few pieces in the past. My newest is about Mali and the Wagner Group. Here’s the conclusion:

Whether it is a calculated threat or an imminent deal, part of what gives Mali’s Wagner Group negotiations such power over Western governments is the mantra of “great power competition” in Washington and beyond. Russia is a second-rate power, with a gross domestic product for 2020 ($1.5 trillion) than was considerably less than that of France ($2.6 trillion), to say nothing of the U.S. economy. Despite all the talk of misinformation on Russia’s part, Western capitals have deluded themselves about Russia’s strength, including in Africa — and that perception blinds Paris, Washington, and others to the harms of the status quo. Mali’s trajectory under current policies, local and Western, is a bigger problem than Russian influence, real or imagined.

Al-Sahrawi’s Reported Death/Brief NPR Appearance

Last week French authorities, including President Emmanuel Macron, announced that French forces had killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, head of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

A good account of what’s known about the hunt for al-Sahrawi is at Jeune Afrique.

I was on NPR briefly to give my comments.

Roundup on Conflict Issues in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger (12/2/2020)

There’s a lot of news and reports coming out that probably each deserve their own post, but given end-of-the-semester stress, it’s wiser for me to just do a roundup today. A few things that have caught my eye recently:

  • Dan Eizenga and Wendy Williams, “The Puzzle of JNIM and Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, December 1. An excerpt: “JNIM’s structure functions as a business association on behalf of its membership, giving the impression that it is omnipresent and inexorably expanding its reach. The characterization of JNIM as a single operational entity, however, feeds the inaccurate perception of a unified command and control structure.”
  • Danielle Paquette and Henry Wilkins, “An American moved to Burkina Faso for ‘a better life.’ He was shot dead outside a military base,” Washington Post, December 1. This is a very sad story, and some of the saddest parts actually relate more to the United States than to Burkina Faso.
  • AFP reports (December 1, French) on a tenuous peace initiative in Ménaka, Mali.
  • France24 has a roughly 16-minute video report (November 27, French) by the journalist Cyril Payen, who embedded with Nigerien special forces.
  • This is a good interview (November 24) with Guillaume Soto-Mayor about Sahelian security issues.

Malian Labor Threatens a General Strike, and Seeks a Different Kind of State

On November 23, the National Union of Malian Workers (French acronym UNTM) sent a 6-page letter to the Minister of Employment and Civil Service threatening a general strike from December 14-18. The letter lays out an immense range of demands. Rather than trying to summarize them all, I’ll just evoke a few that caught my eye:

  • “…the implementation of measures and structures appropriate for relaunching the railroad, the Post Office, and for evaluating privatizations, contracts, and the mining code, in addition to the exploitation of gold, to put Mali back in its rights…”
  • “…compensation of workers who have been victims of the crisis in Mali since 2012…”
  • “…immediate measures for reducing the high cost of living…”

Whether or not the strike happens, and regardless of what it achieves or doesn’t achieve, the letter is a reminder that for many Malians, the country’s crisis goes beyond insecurity and beyond questions of coups and elections – the letter evokes a sense of a citizenry experiencing a socioeconomic crisis that the union leaders, at least, understand as a result of both short-term “political inertia” in 2020 and long-term consequences of privatization and the hollowing-out of the state. There is a short paragraph on the first page summarizing the UNTM’s role in Malian history since 1960 and I don’t think that’s idle; the letter’s authors suggest that the problems they are responding to are deeply embedded in the entire arc of Malian history. I also got the sense that the letter’s authors see almost total continuity between Mali’s pre-coup problems and post-coup problems; if there was a honeymoon for the junta or for the transitional government, that honeymoon definitely seems to be over now in the eyes of the UNTM – and the UNTM sees the transitional government as being fully on the hook for past, unfulfilled agreements with labor made in 2019 and earlier. With the phrases I highlighted above, the letter seems to be calling not just for a resolution of labor’s demands but also for a much more muscular and assertive Malian state.

A Few Stray Quotes Regarding the Reported Jihadist Presence in Mali’s Wagadou Forest

August 2011:

The return of [al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM] in the zone [after a June 2011 Mauritanian-Malian military operation] can be explained by several causes. The most evident is that the forest is strategic: it serves as natural air and ground cover. Satellites or drones cannot spot the elements of AQIM and access by the land route is difficult there.

May 2019:

The forest is a nearly uninhabited zone, frequented by nomads. The vegetation is dense and it is dominated by thorny bushes. The trees, larger in the eastern part of the forest, make the forest darker…The forest is traversed by the road which leaves Dioura for Toladji and Nampala, and also the road that links Diabaly to Nampala. Due to its density and its size, Wagadou offers an ideal refuge for malefactors escaping satellite surveillance and the airstrikes of conventional armies.

October 2020:

The village of Farabougou owes its misfortunes to its reputation as a locality home to intrepid warriors. Situated at the edge of the forest of Wagadou, Farabougou has always fiercely resisted razzias [raids], very frequent in the zone before the pacification imposed by colonization.

October 2020:

Cheick Oumar Sissoko of Espoir Mali Koura, part of the M5-RFP protest movement: “But where do all these motorbikes come from? All these people with transport who circulate as they like? Who come to attack as they like, at 5 o’clock in the morning, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, where do they come from and where do they go afterwards? Where do they resupply themselves with gas, with food? It’s true that today at Dogofry and Farabougou, they took all the animals, the cows, the goats, but where do they come from and where do they go in this border zone with Mauritania? Or it seems that some can be in the forest of Wagadou. Do they not fall back to Mauritania?

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.

Quick Notes: The Late AQIM Amir Abdelmalek Droukdel’s Autobiographical Sketch Revisited (and a Mistake in My Book!)

For a project I’m working on I recently revisited an autobiographical sketch of Abdelmalek Droukdel (1970-2020), the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who was killed in Mali this past June 3. Droukdel provided the sketch to the site Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad in 1426 hijri, which mostly overlaps with 2005. Droukdel was at the time the emir of AQIM under its old name the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat, best known by its French acronym GSPC.

Droukdel gives the following dates:

  • 1970: Born in a village called Zayan in Meftah, Algeria.
  • 1989: Obtained a baccalaureate in mathematics.
  • 1990-1993: Attend the University of Blida, Algeria.
  • 1992: Came into contact with Said Makhloufi, who at the time was leading a group called the Movement for an Islamic State (French acronym MEI).
  • 1993 (December): Joined the “mujahidin,” perhaps the MEI (parts of which were brought into the Armed Islamic Group (French acronym GIA) in a 1994 merger, though Droukdel does not explicitly say which group he joined in 1993 nor does he mention the merger). He was immediately put to work as an explosives maker because of his science and technological background.
  • 1996: Put in charge of “all the workshops for military production for the ‘shock troops’ affiliated with Zone 2.” I am assuming that by “shock troops” he means the literal phrase, but that could be (Jund al-Ahwal) the proper name of a unit.
  • Unspecified date between 1996 and 2001: Took charge of the “Jerusalem Battalion,” later renamed the “Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Battalion.” For reference, Abu Bakr was the first Caliph after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
  • 2001: “Called upon to join the leadership of the [GSPC] and appointed a member of the Council of Notables, for [representing] Zone 2.” Droukdel does not say in this account when he left the GIA for the GSPC; he was a protege of the GSPC emir Nabil Sahraoui/Mustafa Abu Ibrahim/Abu Ibrahim Mustafa (in power 2003-2004), who helped form the GSPC in 1998, so he may have come to the GSPC then.
  • 2003: Appointed head of the Council of Notables, replacing Sahraoui in that role when Sahraoui became emir after the departure/expulsion of the previous emir, Hassan Hattab.
  • 2004: Appointed emir of the GSPC after Sahraoui’s death.

The sketch ends in 2004/2005, obviously, but it captures most of the important stages in Droukdel’s career, given that he remained in that last position, as GSPC/AQIM emir, until his death.

Looking back at the sketch, I also caught a mistake I made in my new book (p. 72). The mistake was to put the date of Droukdel joining the Council of Notables as 2003 instead of 2001. I also referred to him as the Zone 2 commander when that might not be quite right – I will have to check into that further. Looking again at what he said, he wrote that he was appointed “a member for Zone 2” rather than “the member for Zone 2.”

On Another note, establishing who led the GIA’s and then the GSPC’s zones (beyond Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Zone 9), or even precisely where each zone was, is a pretty tricky endeavor in my experience. Someone should write something definitive on that!

My Annotated Translation of the Islamic State’s Article “Liptako: Graveyard of Crusaders and Apostates” from Al-Naba 238 (June 2020)

This project has been on the back burner since the summer, and I guess I ended up saving it for a rainy day. Click the link below (or here) for the translation and annotations; my introduction to the translation gives more context and a few thoughts on the conflict between the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM).

Recent Reporting on Insecurity-Related School Closures in the Central Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

The violent conflicts in the Sahel and in the Lake Chad Basin have been causing schools to close, on and off, for years. Bodies such as Human Rights Watch and the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack have issued reports on this subject this year (in May and September, respectively). Jihadists are key perpetrators of attacks on schools, obviously, targeting them for ideological reasons specific to education (objections to the curricula, for example), but also as symbols and institutions of the state. Schools can also be caught in the crossfire, literal or political, amid extended conflicts; for example, Human Rights Watch points out above that when militaries use schools, it can contribute to making those schools into targets.

Several journalistic reports on school closures have come out just in the past few days:

  • Voice of America (October 19) reports on school closures in northern Cameroon due to attacks by Boko Haram. A Cameroonian official says: “Sixty-two schools have been closed. The children have to be either scholarized [educated] in other schools very far from their own villages or to abandon schools. Thirty-four-thousand-and-fifty-four students have been registered as IDPs. We have the students of the host communities; we have even refugee students.”
  • Le Point (October 21) gives some grim statistics: in Mali, 926 schools out of 8,421 are closed. In the central region of Mopti, the most violent region in the entire Sahel, 127 schools out of 218 are closed.
  • RFI (October 21) gives even worse statistics for Burkina Faso: 2,100 schools closed, although that estimate is actually lower than 2,512, the number of schools closed due to insecurity on the eve of COVID-19, according to Human Rights Watch’s count in its May 2020 report.
  • RFI (October 21) has a short piece on the education crisis in Mali, including a striking micro-portrait of a teacher who was wounded in Kidal, in the far northeast, during an ill-fated visit by the then-Prime Minister there in 2014, which triggered clashes with ex-rebels. The teacher, now in Bamako, says he/she cannot go back because of the state’s absence in Kidal and the security forces’ inability to provide security there.

In some areas, I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say, insecurity is locking parts of entire generations out of their chance at an education. And teachers like the one mentioned above can also have their lives and careers thrown into chaos. Even if the violence stopped tomorrow in all these conflict zones, the effects will be felt over lifetimes.