France’s Strategic Failure in Mali: A Postcolonial Disutility of Force?

Knee-deep: French foreign legionnaires deployed in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane. Image: Armée Française / Wikimedia Commons / Licence Ouverte 2.0

The end of December 2023 saw the final withdrawal of UN forces from Mali after the military regime in Bamako expelled the UN contingent operating in the country. In many ways, the UN pullout represents the most recent domino to fall in the wider collapse of the French-led intervention in Mali that started 11 years earlier.

It is difficult to present the decade-long French-led intervention in Mali as anything other than a failure. France was welcomed into Mali in January 2013 to halt armed ‘jihadist’ groups that were advancing toward the Malian capital, Bamako. However, following two coups, a major falling-out with the new military government and the subsequent arrival of Russian ‘Wagner' mercenaries, French forces left Mali in August 2022. The withdrawal was not only a major failure for France in Mali itself, but it also precipitated a wider collapse of France’s presence, and influence, across the Sahel.

While France chalked up notable initial successes, seizing back Malian towns from al-Qa’ida-linked armed groups, security has deteriorated markedly in the intervening decade. Increasingly capable militants spread from the north to the centre of Mali and then into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. Despite billions of euros spent, attacks on civilians increased, tens of thousands have been killed, and more than 2.5 million people have been displaced. The situation remains very serious.

Despite enjoying a much higher capacity to deploy force than the armed groups it faced, France left with a strategic defeat in its wake.

What Went Wrong? The Disutility of Force

The ‘utility of force’ in conflict is a widely used concept. It refers not to the use of force (the types of forces and weapons systems deployed), but rather its usefulness – that is, the political payoff derived from the use of armed force. Not only did France fail to derive such usefulness from its deployment of force in Mali, but it actually made the situation worse. In a twist on the established notion of the ‘utility of force’, we therefore propose an opposing concept – the ‘disutility of force’ – to explain why France was not able to capitalise on the military means at its disposal. France’s use of force in Mali, far from helping to support a (political) solution, made the military situation worse and the attainment of an acceptable political outcome harder.

Military action that takes place among a population, as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali, is inherently political. In this context, ‘winning’ is as much about the perception of third parties as it is about defeating the enemy in battle. Obtaining at least the tacit support of the affected population is thus a key aim. On the ground, however, France and its partners pursued a strategy that exacerbated underlying Malian conflict dynamics and provided opportunities for their opponents, which these groups gladly seized.

The Armed Groups’ Change of Strategy

The initial French operation launched in 2013, Serval, was in some respects a ‘classical war’, albeit against non-state actors: there was an identifiable enemy seizing towns that could be directly defeated. France’s victory over this enemy was illusory, however, as the armed groups dispersed, living to fight another day.

The perceived supremacy of France, derived from its colonial past and its powerful military, shaped popular expectations towards the French intervention

Changing their strategy, they switched to a more diffuse form of ‘population-centric’ insurgency, embedding themselves in communities and triggering and profiting from communal conflicts. Brutal but strategically astute, this shift changed the character of the conflict, making communities (especially the Peul/Fulani) – or more specifically, the intercommunal conflicts they were involved in – the centre of gravity of the conflict.

Acknowledging the dispersion of these groups across the region, France replaced Serval with a more ambitious regional counterterrorist operation, Barkhane, targeting violent Islamist groups across five countries: Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. From the French military’s point of view, this shift was a way to adapt its strategy to the evolving nature of the security threat. However, rather than isolating the militants and seeking to resolve communal conflicts as a means of protecting the targeted communities, France’s strategy was to maintain a counterterrorist approach and pursue the armed groups, ‘neutralising’ their leaders whenever it could. This did little to address the change in the armed groups’ strategy; indeed, France’s aggressive counterterrorist posture, combined with continued abuses by Malian state forces and their proxies, created disutilities of force which only made the underlying conflict dynamics worse. Repeated over the best part of a decade, the situation became untenable.

France’s failure to adequately adapt to the changing insurgency was partly fuelled by the difficulty of reconciling Barkhane’s strategic objectives (facilitating the reassertion of Malian state sovereignty) with domestic political concerns about getting ‘bogged down’ in the Sahel, with the result that achieving quick counterterrorist ‘wins’ took priority, limiting France’s room for manoeuvre.

Sealing Political Failure: An Increasingly Charged Postcolonial Context

Barkhane’s failure to improve security despite the perceived means at its disposal fuelled increasing negative sentiment towards France. The postcolonial context provided fertile ground, which the Malian authorities then exploited in their quest for legitimacy following the 2020 coup.

The perceived supremacy of France, derived from its colonial past and its powerful military, shaped popular expectations towards the French intervention. In the popular imagination, it was hard to fathom how a country that had controlled the whole region through a system of colonial rule was incapable of defeating local armed groups or protecting the population against them. This led to growing dissatisfaction with the French army’s presence and the emergence of multiple conspiracy theories about the purported ‘true’ reasons for the French intervention, which then proliferated on social media.

Reflexivity over time is essential in military interventions to ensure that political and military strategy are aligned, especially as militant groups are far more strategically astute than they are often given credit for

The problem of being the former colonial power was compounded by a lack of consistency in France’s policymaking. In 2019, French troops were deployed to support Chadian dictator Idriss Déby's efforts to quell a rebellion in the north of the country by bombing rebel convoys. Then, after Déby’s death in 2021, France endorsed the unconstitutional power grab by his son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby. In contrast, France consistently criticised the Malian junta after it seized power in 2020, insisting that elections should take place. The apparent double standard was hard for many Malians to take.

What Can We Learn from the French Failure in Mali?

France was not solely responsible for this failure: the Malian government and armed forces, armed groups, non-state militias and international players all contributed. However, given that France is by no means alone in having overseen a failed Western intervention, there is a pressing need to look critically at the causes of underperformance in foreign interventions, especially those by states with postcolonial legacies.

Reflexivity over time is essential in military interventions to ensure that political and military strategy are – and remain – aligned, especially as militant groups are far more strategically astute than they are often given credit for. The concept of the ‘utility of force’ draws our attention to how strategies support (or hinder) political outcomes. The new corollary adopted here – the disutility of force – highlights the need for sensitivity towards, and reflection on, shifting strategic paradigms. Misconceived strategies that are not – or no longer – grounded in a sound understanding of a conflict can actively compound conflict dynamics, diminishing security and making the underlying political problems at the heart of the conflict harder to resolve.

This piece is adapted from an article originally published in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Professor Tony Chafer

Senior Associate Fellow

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Eloïse Bertrand

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Ed Stoddard

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