By: David Hundeyin
By early 2022, more than 2,000 French troops currently stationed in and around Northern Mali will be on their way home. The French-led Operation Barkhane - a military campaign targeting insurgent Islamists in Africa’s Sahel region - will no longer be the spearhead of French military involvement in the region, according to French president Emmanuel Macron. Speaking in September, Macron said, “France doesn’t have the vocation or the will to stay eternally in the Sahel. We are there because we were asked to be.”
That statement, which contained an implicit retort to criticisms of Operation Barkhane as a neo-colonial project, was strikingly similar to Joe Biden’s statement in August following the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Defending the decision Biden said, “I made a commitment... that I wasn't going to ask [American soldiers] to continue to risk their lives in a military action that should have ended long ago. Our leaders did that in Vietnam when I got here as a young man. I will not do it in Afghanistan.”
Regarding this recent pattern of Western political fatigue toward anti-Islamist military engagement far away from home, much has been made of the political factors that led to these decisions and their potential effects on Afghanistan and Central Asia. Less so, the effects of these decisions on jihadi violence in the Sahel region and across the rest of the African continent.
Islamist Victory is no Longer Unthinkable
At the start of the US military campaign against the Afghan Taliban, few genuinely saw any other realistic outcome but a US military win. At best, there would be a long, drawn-out insurgency carried out by ideologically spirited, but materially under-resourced jihadi fighters. Anti-insurgency operations such as Operation Barkhane also initially elicited such responses. The image of an Islamist insurgent movement at the time, was one of AK47s, Toyota gun trucks and hideouts in inhospitable terrain - nothing to realistically rival a competent and motivated military force with heavy munition and air support.
These withdrawals have turned that assumption on its head. The visual spectacle of the chaotic American withdrawal from Kabul and the Taliban’s rapid and total ascension into power has redrawn the rules of what is possible. To all intents and purposes, an Afghan government backed by the world’s most powerful military has been thoroughly defeated by the quintessential Toyota gun truck Islamist insurgent force, rudimentary as it was in comparison. To Jihadi groups fighting against significantly weaker African militaries and states, this is not just a morale booster, but a real blueprint for victory.
In addition to the new knowledge that drawn-out, scorched earth insurgencies lead to political discontent at home and subsequent withdrawal by Western forces, a number of Jihadi organisations active in Africa also have long-standing material and ideological links to the Taliban. For example, in a 2006 letter to the counter terrorism committee of the UN Security Council, Nigerian permanent Represenative Ambassador Aminu Wali revealed that Sheikh Yakubu Musa Kafanchan, a well known Nigerian radical Islamic cleric was arrested in 2002 for setting up Taliban training camps across Nigeria.
From the chaos of these withdrawals could well emerge Africa’s first terrorist state in the mould of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, as these groups exploit the extant weakness of many African states. If coordination with the Taliban takes place, the world could well have an intercontinental terror corridor stretching from Central Asia through Central Africa. Needless to say, the implications for global security and stability would be disastrous.
Islamists vs Isolated African States
Following the American and French withdrawals, the second logical effect is that newly-isolated African states like Mali will find themselves locked in existential combat with Islamist groups that see a genuine path to achieve their goals. If sufficient military support is not forthcoming, or the Islamists are successful at running fifth columns against the constitutional governments of these states, the world could be looking at multiple African state failure and a chaotic physical redrawing of Africa’s political map. Some have argued that this is exactly what happened in Afghanistan, and that Mali is at risk of repeating the script.
State failure is good news for the spread of jihadist violence in Africa, because it presents Islamists with the opportunity to compete directly for the loyalty and support of citizens against incapacitated governments. It also makes it possible for violence by insurgents against designated out-groups such as ethnic or religious minorities to go unacknowledged or unpunished.
Ultimately as President Macron rightly acknowledged, France cannot and should not stay in Mali forever. As the Barkhane bases in Timbuktu, Tessalit and Kidal are shut down between now and January, the world will do well to remember that jihadi extremism is a threat to the world - wherever it comes from. The majority of the September 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The next time around, they may just be from Mali.