Backing France’s African Adventures: What Could Go Wrong?… Everything

In Africa, Islamic State, and other Islamists, are just the tip of an underlying conflicts iceberg. Still, for decades, French Titanics – fueled by America – have rammed the symptomatic spire whilst ignoring the subsurface bulk of problems Paris largely caused or catalyzed. As for those running that nuance-free Emerald City of Washington – they’ve generally been all in for the latest round of the Quixote show. Only our modern knight-errant Don Emmanuel [Macron], and his recruited squire Sancho Joe [Biden], may have less noble motives than the literary man from La Mancha. Like Cervantes’ chivalric nostalgist, neither sees the world as it as. And West Africa’s continental conflicts are made of sterner stuff than windmills.

The current context of the long-running, on-again, off-again game of U.S.-backing for French classic- and neo-colonialism, is more treacherous than most. Especially in the drought-prone, impoverished West African Sahel, on the southern rim of the Sahara Desert. This region was virtually terror-free in the wake of 9/11, so the – "We’re an empire now" – GW Bushies had to all but invent some, and certainly rebrand crime, smuggling, and drug-running as inherently Islamist-inflected. Almost two decades later, the place is a damn nightmare.

Of course, our fellow (how often we forget) exceptionalist-universalist Parisian friends have long, and usually unilaterally – at least until the quagmiric 2002 Côte d’Ivoire imbroglio forced a turn towards at least cosmetic multilateralism – intervened in their L’Afrique francophone "special sphere." Twenty-four times post-colonial-independence, in fact, from 1960 to 2001 – usually to back some France-friendly, resource- and export-generous, client dictator. Of course it didn’t stop there: since September 11th, 2001, Paris has sent its soldiers on active operations in no less than eight African countries – six of them former colonies – which earns them a solid silver in the global interventionist-Olympics (behind only you-know-who).

But it wasn’t until a keyed-up on post-9/11 patriotism Uncle Sam went looking for phantom Sahelian terror (2003-04), finally found it (2008-12) – well, after helping create it – realized he hadn’t the resources or public will to fight it, cheered the French former colonizers big-time back-in (2013), then mightily assisted their neo-imperial campaign (2013-?), that the joint really came apart. In the end (or is it a Churchillian "end of the beginning?"), only the most radically violent jihadis and vulturous conflict-economy opportunists won. Washington and Paris lost (relatively) small – again! – and, per usual and in the Western-ignored shadows, local Africans lost big.

Macron: Bidding for Biden Bailout?

Only wait for the kicker (or perhaps punchline): now Prime Minister Macron – almost exactly a year to the day after he urged a seemingly wavering President Trump not to get out of Africa – is apparently hoping for Biden-bailout for France’s collapsing campaign in the Sahel. One can see why. The seven-years-running French military mission – Operation Barkhane – is floundering. In the just the first month of 2021, that impending failure – or at least terminal quagmire – tolls to the tune of:

  • Five French troops killed in action inside Mali over the first five days of the new year;
  • Six more French soldiers injured – three seriously – during a January 8th suicide attack on their convoy.
  • International calls for an impartial investigation in the wake of multiple eyewitness reports that French airstrikes killed 19 civilians – though Paris rejects the allegations, claiming the victims were jihadist fighters – at wedding ceremony in east-central Mali on January 3rd;
  • Four United Nations peacekeepers killed, and five more wounded, in a roadside bombing and small arms’ ambush on January 14th – these latest deaths adding to a total toll of 235 fatalities, and 363 seriously injuries, among civilian and uniformed personnel, in what remains the most dangerous UN operation in the world.  
  • A mid-January opinion poll indicating, for the first time, that a majority of French citizens oppose Paris’s Sahel operation; and, just days later, Macron – who’s up for reelection in 2022 – opened the door to reducing (of course, he said "adjust") France’s military mission in the Sahel.
  • Another fresh – but cyclical – rise in local anti-French sentiment. As when, on January 17th, riot gear-clad Malian security forces used tear gas to disperse around 1,000 demonstrators in the capital city of Bamako – who’d been protesting France’s military presence in the country.
  • Then, just two days ago, ten government soldiers were reportedly killed in central Mali during an attack in which – unusually – the presumed jihadists used armored vehicles! The intensity of the combat and casualties apparently prompted the French army to intervene alongside Malian reinforcements, with – according to a French Army spokesman – aerial strikes from a drone, Mirage jets, and two Tiger helicopters.

Furthermore, the Parisian pretenders to past glory simply can’t cash the great power checks they’ve been writing in Africa since 1960. No doubt, some French soldiers, "brought up on the ‘exploits’ of colonial conquest" may – according to one detailed and disturbing analysis – peddle "colonial nostalgia" and style themselves bestowers of "the benefits of civilization." But truth is ,that the lot of them – sergeants, subalterns, and senior generals – are little more than security subcontractors for an American behemoth they alternately love, hate, need, and hate to need.

About a year ago, Defense Minister Florence Parly admitted as much when warning the Trump administration against pulling troops from the Sahel – stating "that the U.S. support is critical to our operations and its reduction would severely limit our effectiveness against terrorists." And it’s surely critical – Washington currently provides France’s Operation Barkhane with intelligence and surveillance capabilities (thanks largely to US drones), in-flight refueling and logistical transport, at a cost of some $45 million per year. And again, reduced US support would "severely limit effectiveness," except that French – like American – counterterror in Africa has a track record of mainly inverse effectiveness. These are counter-productivity factories furnishing rebel fighters faster than either foreign army can kill them.

Unfortunately, so far it seems that none of new administration’s foreign policy consiglieres – certainly not that known Africa-arsonist, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan – briefed Biden on any of this (or knew enough to try if by chance they cared to). Now Jake, it bears noting, is brighter than the average Biden bear – and probably does know comprehend more context than most. He’s also a youthful master of palace intrigue who knows precisely how awkward it’d be to let anything inconvenient slip – since his own past chapter as a [Hillary] Clintonian Libyan regime change-champion had an outsized effect on the region. In fact, toppling Moammar Ghadafi may count as the “signal event” – by funneling fighters, firearms, and grievances southwest into the Sahel’s current conflict zones – in the Sahel’s US/Western-induced "tsunami of blowback."

Either way, according to the White House readout of his January 24th call with President Emmanuel Macron, President Biden didn’t let off any understanding of the real context, only that he:

"…express[ed] his desire to strengthen bilateral ties with our oldest ally…stressed his commitment to bolstering the transatlantic relationship, including through NATO and…also agreed to work together on shared foreign policy priorities, including…the Sahel."

Such comments – vague and superficial as they are – don’t befit a leader properly briefed on the complex and counterproductive backstory of Franco-American military interventions in the West African Sahel. But briefed Biden should’ve been. Context counts – especially in post-colonial conflicts.

Problematic Partners, Poisoned Wells

Naturally, this being hyper-interventionist America in 2021 and all, the US has had some 6,000 troops in Africa – including about 1,400 in the Sahel – for a while now. But if Biden does decide to ship in some more, here’s one bit of long lingering and crucial context he, and they, ought know: the governments of these post-colonially crafted countries – with all the resultant ethnic, linguistic, religious, and farmer-pastoralist-nomad divides – make for preposterously problematic "partners."

Consider the troubling trends in Freedom House’s new report: "Freedom in the World 2020." Not a single Franco-American "partner" in the overlapping wars for the Greater Sahel ranked as "free," according to the organization’s metrics. For starters, Mali – the veritable ground-zero of current regional disasters – comes in at 41/100 (that’s 135th out of 210 countries ranked). Mali also suffered the world’s worst aggregate score decline over the last decade, dropping a full 31 points amidst an ongoing insurgency and two military coups perpetrated by trained officers.

Nearby Niger, the hub of US Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) operations in West Africa and home to a criminally mismanaged $100 million American drone base – construction of which may have violated US laws according to the Pentagon’s own Inspector General – scored 48/100. That marginal rating comes on account of a "current regime in Niger…elected in…a polling process plagued by serious irregularities," and because "security challenges posed by active militant groups [have] served as an alibi for the government to restrict civil liberties." In other words – in classic COINdinista-speak – in Niger, a dubiously legitimate host nation government fuels Islamist fires through unbridled abuses both at the front and behind the lines.

Over in Africa’s post-colonial Anglo-sphere, the report notes that in Nigeria – clocking in at a paltry 47/100 – since "the year’s elections were marred by serious irregularities and widespread intimidation of voters, poll workers, and journalists, marking a decline from the 2015 elections." In other words, its government is hardly a prime partner for proxy war against Boko Haram and the Islamic State affiliates in northeast – and recently, northwest – Nigeria’s ongoing muddled mess.

Burkina Faso is the strongest of the "partly free" colonial-relic synthetic states of the Sahel, with a grade of 56/100 – but that’s creeped downward seven points in just three years, as terrorism and rebellion have spilled over the Mali and Niger borders into this once secure "US success story.” Lastly, Libya – victim of the 2011 U.S.-Anglo-French regime changed that sent the region spiraling – sits squarely in the cellar on Freedom House’s "Worst of the Worst" list, with a whopping score of 9/100.

As if there weren’t enough purely security-related markers of AFRICOM’s (and France’s) failure – say, a 1,105 percent increase in violent events linked to Islamist-inflected groups over the last decade – Freedom House’s archives demonstrate that the command’s supposed "comparatively…small investment" that "buys an outsized share of US influence" to "promote American values and principals" hasn’t panned out either. Since America’s newest combatant command opened for business in 2008, the three key Sahelian countries with an active Franco-American military presence – Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – count a combined Freedom House drop of 40 points.

On the Sahelian ground, all these military coups, civil liberties suppressions, and partnered security force abuses, amount to more than the sum of their neat ranking’s parts on some NGO’s – a U.S.-based, USfunded one at that – nifty charts. What matters is that according to the American military’s own counterinsurgency bible – Army Field Manual 3-24 – all this indecency feeds a formula for failure and forever war in Africa. Recall that even that ever-problematic FM 3-24 – the Gospel according to David [Petraeus] – has much to say about the success-prerequisite of sound and legitimate local partners.

FM 3-24 unequivocally states that in countering an insurgency, "Legitimacy is the main objective," and "The presence of the rule of law is a major factor in assuring voluntary acceptance of a [host nation] government’s authority and therefore its legitimacy." This long-revered field manual is crystal clear about the limits of external military intervention in the defense of unfree, illegitimate, and abusive local hosts:

Military action can address the symptoms of a loss of legitimacy…However, success in the form of a durable peace requires restoring legitimacy…A COIN effort cannot achieve lasting success without the [host nation] government achieving legitimacy.

None of which bodes well in unlucky year-13 of AFRICOM’s – nor year-131 or so of France’s – Sahelian African adventures. Then again, American officers aren’t known for reading their own doctrine.

To their credit, so far it seems that neither President Biden nor his defense secretary – retired General Lloyd Austin – have made any firm commitments on additional troops for the already absurdist US mission in the Sahel. A headline in the French press after Austin spoke with his counterpart – French Minister of the Armies Parly – was far more blunt: "The Pentagon promises nothing in Paris," and "The new head of the US army [sic] remained elusive about his support for the anti-jihadist operation in the Sahel."

Here’s hoping the Biden bunch holds out for once. Still, there are plenty of troubling signals, and – if the past indeed be prologue – solid grounds for the duly doubtful.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen