In a widely-expected move, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a withdrawal of his forces from conflict-torn Mali on Thursday. Such a withdrawal would certainly represent a bitter end to a nine-year deployment and signal a failure of France's overall counterinsurgency project in the region. But don't expect a full departure, at least not yet.
French action in Mali began as a quick mission (Operation Serval) to topple a jihadist proto-state, but then became bogged down as an open-ended counterterrorism mission (Operation Barkhane) confronting an interminable insurgency. Meanwhile, Mali’s politics lurched from bad to worse. An ineffective civilian president, overthrown in an August 2020 coup, was replaced by a clique of officers who now appear very reluctant to leave power. France’s withdrawal, which Macron announced in a press conference after a meeting with European Union-African Union summit leaders, occurs amid pronounced diplomatic tensions between Bamako and Paris, including the expulsion of France’s ambassador in January.
The French press is now full of analyses of what went wrong with the French mission in Mali. Analysts underline factors such as the low levels of troops deployed, the lack of an ultimate military objective (beyond a parade of strikes against senior jihadists), the frequent misalignment of priorities between Paris and Bamako, and the growing mistrust among Sahelian citizens regarding French operations. One prominent French analyst, surveying the history of French deployments in postcolonial Africa (largely in France’s own former colonies) writes, “the French army can play firefighter but not police.” In other words, quick French actions can tilt the balance in a civil war in favor of France’s preferred victor, but extended counterinsurgency campaigns are likely to falter.
This conclusion will sound quite familiar to anyone who has followed America’s misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is, moreover, a blame game now underway that resembles discussions of American failures in those two wars. Such discussions often pin primary responsibility on the “host country” — either on its weak military, its corrupt civilian leaders, or both. Yet the causes of French (and American) military-political failures are structural, for at least two reasons. First, local citizens often come to perceive open-ended deployments as unwelcome foreign occupations, undermining the foreign forces’ political objectives.
Second, intensive counterterrorism campaigns targeting top leaders are ill-structured for addressing the factors driving the recruitment of the rank-and-file to jihadist organizations. These factors include the crisis of pastoralism in the region, the anger caused by security force abuses against jihadists, the relative appeal of jihadists’ version of law-and-order within conflict zones, and the desire for a new economic order in regions long dominated by an oligarchic local elite.
The debate matters because France’s military and counterterrorism role in the Sahel is far from over. Press coverage of France’s troop withdrawal exaggerates the degree to which the French are likely to pull back. In June, after Macron announced the imminent end of Barkhane “as an exterior operation,” news outlets often inadvertently suggested that it was Barkhane or nothing — all while France was building up a pan-European special forces group called Task Force Takuba as a loose replacement for Barkhane.
Now that both Barkhane and Takuba are shifting away from Mali, headlines sometimes imply that France’s Sahelian venture is wrapping up — but the more likely outcome is that France will shift forces to Mali’s neighbors Burkina Faso and Niger.
Indeed, Barkhane has been a Sahel-wide mission since its launch in 2014. Counterterrorism strikes on Malian soil may well continue, including a degree of U.S. involvement that is sometimes hard to gauge (the extent of the American military presence in and around Mali is difficult to assess, and when things go wrong — from scandals to setbacks — it appears that there are larger deployments than the Pentagon had previously acknowledged).
Local actors (the current junta in Bamako specifically, and the Malian military, and civilian elite more broadly) are part of Barkhane’s failures in Mali, but only part. Indeed, it seems that France is departing from Mali having learned relatively few lessons. Mali’s current leadership may be particularly acerbic and confrontational vis-à-vis France, and Mali’s problems are arguably more severe than those of its neighbors (relatively isolated diplomatically, host to a counterproductive deployment of Russian mercenaries, and under crushing regional economic sanctions, Mali is at a low point), but Burkina Faso and Niger are also in very bad shape.
To take just one metric, in Burkina Faso alone, over 1.5 million people — approximately 7 percent of the population — are currently displaced. The recent coup in Burkina Faso also indicates that the combination of presidential overreach, endemic insecurity, corruption, popular discontent, and anti-French sentiment that precipitated Mali’s 2020 coup, is not at all unique to that country. Confronting a region-wide crisis, France needs new ideas, and not just new bases.
What happens next in Mali will, prismatically, be open to all sides to interpret as they like. Any degradation in Mali’s security can now be blamed on the departure (however meaningful) of French forces— yet could equally be blamed on the country’s already poor security trajectory even before the French drawdown.
As French forces depart, meanwhile, Malian authorities still face severe constraints on what they can do and change. Under sanctions and facing intensive diplomatic pressure, Mali’s authorities (unsympathetic though they may be to many outsiders) will be hard-pressed to meet the dizzying array of challenges now confronting them, ranging from simply paying civil servants to the political challenge of rerouting a transition to civilian rule to the uncharted territory of possible negotiations with jihadists (which may have already begun).
The situation in Mali may well now worsen considerably, but that does not in and of itself prove that an open-ended French presence was good or necessary; after all, had France’s strategy (however crude) been succeeding, things would not have deteriorated so badly that France had to leave Mali with essentially no accomplishments other than a list of dead jihadists.
Alex Thurston is is a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute and Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of three books, most recently "Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups"(Cambridge University Press, 2020). Additional writing can be found at his website Sahel Blog (sahelblog.wordpress.com).
French soldiers from SERVAL Force hold their hats as they wait for the beginning of the official inauguration of Mali newly elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita at the Stadium 25 of Mars in Bamako, Mali. Photo MINUSMA/Marco Dormino/UN Mission Mali)
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.