The withdrawal of French troops from historic ally Mali marks a loss of influence for Paris and Europe as a whole in Africa, paving the way for other powers to intervene, experts say.
China, Russia and Turkey may find new opportunities as the balance of power of recent decades erodes after French forces were thwarted in an asymmetric battle with insurgents.
The 2013 French intervention, Operation Serval, to beat back Mali’s northern jihadists was largely successful militarily, initially receiving support from the local population.
But the image of the French presence was gradually tarnished by lingering uncertainty and public opinion opposing the protracted Barkhane mission, until Bamako’s military junta made it clear that it was no longer wanted.
France “has lost a lot of influence,” said Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos, a Sahel expert at the Marseille-based National Research Institute for Sustainable Development.
“After celebrating the restoration of parliamentary democracy in Mali in 2013, it was unable to prevent repeated coups, as Sahelians continued to accuse the country of being the kingmaker in the region.”
While Paris’ latest plan is a realignment around the Sahel to continue the fight against jihadists, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, there is no way to label it a victory, analysts say.
Strategic and tactical defeats
The withdrawal from Mali is “a strategic defeat, because this withdrawal was precisely the goal of the jihadists,” said Denis Tull of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“It is also a political withdrawal, because Barkhane is not leaving Mali voluntarily, but because Bamako chose to leave.”
A narrow focus on operations such as eliminating jihadist leaders blinded France to growing anti-colonial sentiment among the population, analysts say.
That real resentment was also exploited by geopolitical opponents.
According to Western governments, Wagner mercenaries from Russia are now present in Mali and many other African countries.
China is building infrastructure deals and trade ties across the region, while Turkey has increased its presence in Africa in recent years by capitalizing on cultural and Islamic ties.
“France took too many things for granted as it continued its counter-terrorism strategy, including the need to bring public opinion to justice,” US-based independent analyst Michael Shurkin told AFP.
“If France wants its counter-terrorism strategy to succeed, it will have to deal with Africans differently.”
Russia, China and Turkey feel that “today is the right time to retaliate by seizing the levers of influence and power from the West,” said Pascal Ausseur of the French Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies.
The EU leaders’ summit in Brussels with the African Union on Thursday and Friday and the announcement of more than 150 billion euros ($170 billion) in investments may aim to maintain influence on the continent.
But the EU must compete with other actors “on African terms” so that geopolitical rivalries “do not come at the expense of Africans,” a group of European academics wrote in the online journal World Politics Review on Tuesday.
‘High Intensity’ Conflict
With more than 5,000 troops deployed at its peak, the asymmetrical Sahel conflict against jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group has shaped an entire generation of French soldiers.
While some groups were able to launch rocket or mortar attacks or even complex attacks on convoys and isolated bases in the vast, arid Sahel, their improvised roadside bombs caused more deaths and injuries than any other weapon.
For their part, the French relied on air strikes for quick responses to the latest intelligence, whether it be unmanned Reaper drones newly added to their arsenal or more classic attack helicopters and fighter jets.
But Paris’ ground forces in particular see a transformed future, especially as tensions with Russia in Eastern Europe mount.
Army chief Pierre Schill told reporters the department “must be able to potentially face an adversary at the same level” in a major “high-intensity” conflict.