France Should Give Mali Space to Negotiate with Jihadists, warontherocks.com

Alex Thurston. Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati.

On March 8, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Sahel region — Jama‘at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (“The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims” or JNIM) — released a communiqué accepting an offer by the Malian government to negotiate a peace. The jihadists set only one precondition for entering into negotiations: “Ending the racist, arrogant, French Crusader occupation.”

France is highly unlikely to pull out of Mali altogether, at least in the medium term, given successive French governments’ seeming determination to pursue a military victory there. But however bitter a pill it might be for Paris to swallow, French forces would be wise to pull back on counter-terrorism operations in Mali. Doing so would give the Mali-JNIM dialogue a chance to play out, give France and its partners time to reevaluate their regional counter-terrorism approach, and could help drive a wedge between various jihadist groups. In particular, France should publicly commit to suspending its hunt for top jihadist leaders who participate in dialogue. […]

Yet France is not succeeding at stabilizing the Sahel. In fact, things are getting worse. The years from 2017 through 2019 were all more violent than 2012 and 2013, the period still sometimes thought of as Mali’s time of crisis. A recent New York Times report observed,

“France now finds itself stuck in the Sahel, much like the United States found itself in Afghanistan and Iraq — spending years and billions of dollars on fighting highly mobile Islamist groups in difficult, unfamiliar terrain, with no end in sight.” […]

Meanwhile, the goodwill that Malians showed French forces in early 2013 has faded in many quarters. In Mali’s capital (Bamako) and elsewhere in the region, anti-French protesters call for the withdrawal of foreign soldiers. There is little reliable quantitative data about Malians’ overall attitudes toward France, but during my own fieldwork in Bamako I have been surprised by how many Malians, including elites, question France’s motives and regard France’s role as problematic. Läs artikel