The End of Operation Barkhane and the Future of Counterterrorism in Mali

On February 17, France—alongside several EU states and Canada—announced its withdrawal of troops and military resources from Mali. This development will primarily affect Operation Barkhane, a French-led counterinsurgency operation (and the largest external counterterrorism force) in the Sahel, as well as the complementary Takuba Task Force, a grouping of European special forces units that support local counterterrorism efforts. Currently, approximately 2,400 of France’s 4,300 troops deployed in the Sahel are stationed in Mali. French president Emmanuel Macron has said its withdrawal will take anywhere from four to six months, with Mali’s military junta demanding that France leave immediately. Questions remain around the impact on other international missions in which France has played a key role, including the United Nations’ Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

Q1: Why are France and other Western partners withdrawing from Mali?

A1: France, several EU partners, and Canada are withdrawing from Mali due to a complex, multifaceted breakdown in ties between Paris and Bamako. The February 17 withdrawal announcement comes after months of fraught relations between the erstwhile partners, including the expulsion of the French ambassador to Mali following public characterization of Mali’s military junta as “out of control” and illegitimate by French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Indeed, at the core of France’s withdrawal is the belief that Mali’s transitional government is an untenable counterterrorism partner and that it is unwilling or unable to address the growing web of security and governance issues in the country.

This belief is not new. France has grown increasingly impatient with Mali’s recent domestic governance failures. While Paris maintained relatively friendly ties with junta leaders following the August 2020 coup that deposed democratically elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, relations quickly soured following the country’s May 2021 coup, which replaced Mali’s transitional president and alleged Paris-sympathizer Bah Ndaw with coup leader Colonel Assimi Goïta. In response, France suspended joint military operations for three weeks, and in July 2021, announced the reorientation of its military operations in the Sahel, including the “Europeanization” of Operation Barkhane with a smaller French contingent. France-Mali ties were further strained in January 2022 when the military junta reneged on its promise to organize February elections and proposed a five-year transition before elections. That same month, the Malian junta struck back against French-led operations when it demanded the immediate withdrawal of Danish troops from Takuba Task Force due to a lack of authorization. 

Q2: Will France halt counterterrorism operations completely across West Africa?

A2: It is unlikely that France, or other key Western partners, will end their military presence or counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel and across West Africa. In the joint declaration announcing the withdrawal from Mali, signatories committed to “political and military consultations” that will produce a new framework for joint counterterrorism operations by June 2022. This new framework will likely include continued assistance to African initiatives like the G5 Sahel Joint Force, a regional counterterrorism task force comprised of military personnel from Sahelian states.

More broadly, France maintains a military footprint in West Africa that is sufficient to continue counterterrorism operations. While the majority of Operation Barkhane’s forces were deployed in Mali, the operation also has permanent bases in Niamey, Niger, and N’Djamena, Chad. France is also expected to continue Operation Sabre, a task force of approximately 300 to 400 special operations forces based in Burkina Faso with a mandate to conduct counterterrorism operations. France has permanent personnel stationed in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, respectively, giving the French military continued regional presence. As Islamic militant groups gain ground in West African littoral states like Côte d’Ivoire and Benin, France could also shift its counterterrorism efforts to these states, increasing security cooperation with these armies.

Other European countries will also remain engaged in roles such as advising and assisting local forces, as well as accompanying them during operations. On February 18, Nigerien president Mohamed Bazoum announced that Niger would welcome personnel from the Takuba Task Force. Collaboration between Niger and Takuba forces will likely be aimed at disrupting insurgent activity in the “three-borders” zone between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

Q3: What were France’s main successes and failures in Mali?

A3: Most of France’s counterterrorism successes in Mali occurred between 2013 and 2014 as part of Operation Serval, the French military operation that ousted Islamic militants from northern Mali. When the operation ended in 2014, the French had attained the operation’s stated objective—namely, to liberate land comprising nearly half of the country that had been overrun by jihadists over the course of a few months. In 2014, however, the French transitioned Operation Serval into Operation Barkhane with the goal to provide continued counterterrorism support to the G5 Sahel member states. But the tactical successes of Operation Barkhane—including the killing of high-profile jihadist leaders such as Abdel­malek Droukdel and Bah Ag Moussa—have been overshadowed by France’s irrefutable failures in Mali.

According to recent analysis by Nathaniel Powell, France failed in Mali due to a combination of factors, including a misunderstanding of local conflict dynamics, political mistakes, and operational errors. Perhaps most critically, France’s approach in the country was overwhelmingly militarized—based on the incorrect assumption that terrorist groups are the root of instability in the Sahel—and failed to address Mali’s governance crisis, despite rhetoric calling for democratization. As Powell notes, France was unable to commit leaders to a type of governance that would restore their legitimacy and help address underlying drivers of the conflict. These failures helped fuel the expansion of jihadist violence from the north of Mali to the central region, as well as to Niger, Burkina Faso, and the northern borders of Benin and Côte d’Ivoire.

France also failed in Mali by losing the public’s trust. Anti-French sentiment around its inability to tackle the security crisis helped fuel support for the August 2020 and May 2021 coups, which deposed leaders that were, in some capacity, cooperating with French efforts. Critically, France also lost the trust of the Malian population through a lack of transparency about civilian casualties during military operations. Bamako-based civil society activist Doussouba Konaté told one of the authors that a tipping point occurred in March 2021 when UN investigators revealed that a January 2021 French airstrike—ostensibly against a militant position—hit a wedding in central Mali and killed 19 civilians, contradicting the official French account of events.

Q4: How will the drawdown affect Islamist insurgent groups and militant violence in Mali?

A4: Armed violence is likely to continue apace or even increase following the Western withdrawal from Mali. Despite Operation Barkhane’s inability to alter the strategic trajectory of the conflict, the operation's raids, targeted strikes, and other military operations, which have served as tactical and operational disruptors to militant groups, will now be absent.  This decrease in military pressure comes as militancy is on the rise in Mali. Violence linked to militant Islamic groups like Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims—JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) rose 70 percent in 2021 compared to 2020. This figure includes an approximate doubling in attacks on civilians and associated deaths. According to research by the International Crisis Group, JNIM has a “hegemonic presence” in many parts of central and northern Mali. A decrease in military pressure against this hegemony will allow JNIM to further consolidate its political control, enforce its conservative ideology, and complicate any efforts by the Malian state to reestablish control of these areas.

The current withdrawal, coupled with the Malian government’s signals of openness to negotiations with militant groups, could offer an opportunity for dialogue between Mali and JNIM. In 2020, JNIM preconditioned dialogue with the Malian government on the departure of foreign military forces from Mali. France, for its part, rejected Malian moves toward dialogue with militants. With France’s withdrawal, however, comes additional diplomatic maneuvering room for the Malian junta. One poll conducted in 2017 found that more than 50 percent of Malians favored dialogue with jihadist groups, meaning negotiations could be a popular policy for the junta to pursue if they succeed in reducing violence.

Other armed actors, including Tuareg separatist groups, have expressed concern about the “security vacuum” left by the departing French forces and could step forward in an attempt to fill this gap. This would likely increase local violence, particularly violence against civilians. Pro-Malian government militias, such as the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies (GATIA), have committed extrajudicial killings and fueled intercommunal violence during previous efforts to counter ISGS—a scenario which could play out anew should militias attempt to more forcefully counter jihadist groups.

Q5: The Wagner Group, a Russian private military company (PMC), deployed to Mali in December 2021. What is it doing? Will Russia successfully fill the vacuum created by the French withdrawal?

A5: The Wagner Group—Russia’s most prolific PMC—has been tasked with training local armed forces and providing security to senior Malian officials. In exchange, Wagner will earn about $10.8 million per month and is pursuing access to local natural resources such as gold. This agreement mirrors Russia’s recent use of PMCs in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where PMCs have exchanged security services for mining concessions and access to energy sources.

Wagner is unlikely to successfully eliminate the threat of jihadist groups in Mali. Across other deployments, such as its failed mission combating insurgents in Mozambique, Wagner has demonstrated inexperience and poor preparation in countering local threats. Like Operation Barkhane, Wagner is also unlikely to be able to address governance issues and other underlying drivers of the conflict—and may even resist opportunities to do so in order to ensure dependence on its own services. Thus, it is not likely to have either the ability or the will to conduct thorough counterterrorism operations and political interventions. Wagner may instead focus on protecting its own resource gains and “coup-proofing” the Malian junta, as it has done for President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Moreover, only about 1,000 Wagner troops are currently deployed in Mali—less than a third of the roughly 800 Takuba troops and 2,400 French troops deployed in the country. Even if Wagner were to pursue stability in earnest, it is unlikely to achieve what a larger and more experienced force could not.

It is highly probable that localized violence will increase in the near term—including not only attacks by militias and jihadist groups, but also violence committed by Wagner itself. In CAR, for example, Wagner troops have committed a wide range of crimes and human rights abuses, including excessive use of force, rape, indiscriminate violence against civilians, torture, looting, and occupation of schools. These have occurred both in the context of combat operations and as a component of daily life, particularly in towns located near operating bases. Similar abuses are likely to repeat in Mali.

Q6: How will the presence of the Wagner Group and the end of French counterterrorism efforts in Mali impact neighboring Sahelian states?

A6: Wagner counterterrorism operations are unlikely to spill over into neighboring countries, though Russia may pursue additional deployment agreements with those states. The likelihood of additional partnerships may be impacted by Wagner’s level of success in Mali. The PMC’s deployment to Mali continues Moscow’s growing ambition to establish diplomatic and security cooperation agreements with African countries, which was explicitly demonstrated by the first Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum in Sochi in 2019. Russia will likely continue this effort by seeking ties with other Sahelian states that have experienced weak governance or recent coups.

As part of its withdrawal from Mali, France is expected to redeploy troops and consolidate activities in neighboring Niger. As one of the only internationally recognized civilian governments in the Sahel, Niger represents a key counterterrorism partner for France. The impact on Burkina Faso and Chad are less obvious. It is unclear how Ouagadougou’s new military junta, which grabbed power through a coup in January 2022, will engage France and other Western partners, or what its commitment to counterterrorism will be. France’s counterterrorism operations continue to benefit the junta, including a recent air strike that killed 40 fighters on the Burkina Faso-Benin border. Meanwhile, Chad’s military junta, which came to power unconstitutionally following the April 2021 death of President Idriss Déby, has committed to increase the number of troops it sends to MINUSMA as France discusses how its withdrawal will affect the mission. But important questions loom: What will Mali’s junta do once French forces are gone? Will they pursue negotiations with jihadist groups that deliver dividends? And, critically, what will neighboring countries take away from this debacle? Perhaps the juntas in both Burkina Faso and Chad—as well as Niger’s president Bazoum—will be warier of partnering with France out of fear their citizens will turn against them.

Marielle Harris is a research associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Catrina Doxsee is an associate director and associate fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. Jared Thompson is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jared Thompson

Jared Thompson

Former Research Associate, Transnational Threats Project

Marielle Harris