Calling Time on the EU Mission to Mali
Conditions for a continued German involvement in the EU mission to Mali look poor. The UN mission, however, could become even more important.
This month the German government will submit a recommendation to parliament on whether the country’s armed forces—the Bundeswehr—should continue to participate in international stabilization efforts in Mali. German soldiers have been involved in two missions in the west African country since international crisis management began there in 2013. The Bundeswehr’s is part of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA), presently contributing as many as 1,100 troops to that operation. Germany has also sent up to 600 soldiers to participate in EUTM Mali, the EU’s own military mission in the country. EUTM’s objective has been to train and advise the Malian army, so as ultimately to enable it to independently guarantee security.
EUTM Mali forms part of the international exit strategy, since its overall goal is to render the presence of any foreign military forces redundant. For its part, MINUSMA’s mandate is to protect major Malian population centers and support the peace process between the government in Bamako and rebel forces in the north. In 2019, the UN mission was additionally tasked with stabilizing central Mali, in particular the region of Mopti.
In previous years, the German parliament’s extension of the two mandates has been relatively uncontroversial, at least going on voting results. But this year’s extension is by no means a foregone conclusion. There are several reasons for this: the Afghanistan fiasco, the Malian military’s seizure of power, and the political rift between Mali and France, which until recently had been the undisputed leader of the international coalition in the country. The break between Bamako and its former colonial power led to the announcement of the French military withdrawal from Mali, as part of Operation Barkhane, its longstanding counterinsurgency operation in West Africa. In the wake of the coup, Mali’s new rulers have instead looked to Russia as a military partner, with the particular involvement of the paramilitary Wagner Group.
Since the German parliament last voted on Mali a year ago, Western military forces have been hastily withdrawn from Afghanistan. Previously, the situation in Afghanistan after 20 years of Western presence was regarded as a sobering reminder of the limits of intervention. But the Taliban's return and its takeover of the country has prompted deeper disillusionment, which now seems to extend to overseas military missions in general. With this in mind, German foreign and security policy-makers are taking a long hard look at Mali, now by far the largest German overseas deployment.
A closer examination of the situation in Mali is in any case long overdue. It has not substantially improved since 2013; in fact, the last five years have seen significant deterioration. The government in Bamako has continued to gradually lose territorial control, with jihadist groups expanding their presence from the north of the country to its central regions, where jihadism, civil war, and inter-ethnic conflicts combine to create a complex, overlapping problem.
Operation Barkhane and the wider French fight against terrorism have failed to bring stability to the country, although many jihadist leaders have been killed. Efforts to upgrade Mali’s armed forces have only marginally improved their effectiveness, with crucial institutional reforms in the security sector failing to make progress.
At best, EUTM Mali and MINUSMA have slowed down the speed of the crisis. But the two missions have also failed to prevent the spread of the conflict to two of Mali’s neighbors, Niger and Burkina Faso. Northern regions of coastal states on the Gulf of Guinea (Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, and Togo) are now likewise threatened by violence and destabilization.
However, negative developments have not led to any major strategic rethink on the part of the international community, as documented in MINUSMA’s and EUTM’s mandates. Instead, the reaction has basically been “More of the same!” Existing efforts have been intensified, but the overall approach has remained largely unchanged, centering on the threefold approach of combating terrorism (Operation Barkhane), stabilization (MINUSMA and a patchwork of bilateral and multilateral projects), and military training (EUTM and various other bilateral projects, including German ones).
In Mali itself, mass anti-government protests led to the military overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020, further complicating the political context for stabilization efforts. For European governments, the military junta is an uncomfortable partner. The post-coup regime enjoys considerable domestic political support, thanks to its overthrow of Mali's established political class. This domestic popularity has been strengthened by the army’s resistance to pressure from EU and ECOWAS, the West African regional organization, to swiftly organize democratic elections. It is widely felt in Mali that elections would be counterproductive as a democratic process unless there is prior political and institutional reform. ECOWAS mediators and the government in Bamako will probably soon reach a compromise agreement, ushering in a transition process that may see elections take place in about 18 months. However, an agreement will by no means solve all of the international community’s troubles.
In true populist style, the military government in Bamako has scapegoated the international community for the country's political deadlock. France has been the focus of particular condemnation. To preempt the expulsion of its military, Paris announced its unilateral withdrawal, to be completed by autumn 2022.
The French withdrawal has serious consequences for Germany and other troop contributors. The departure of around 2,000 French military personnel, along with their drones, combat aircraft, and helicopters, will give jihadist forces considerably greater freedom of movement. Attacks on international troops will become more likely, although European forces in Mali are in general very risk-averse. Germany has suffered two fatalities in the country since 2013, which was the result of an accident.
Mali's recent security policy turn to Russia presents yet another problem from a German and European perspective. European governments cannot openly criticize choices made by the sovereign Malian state in terms of intergovernmental cooperation. But this is not the case when it comes to the Russian mercenary force, the Wagner Group, said now to have up to 1,000 operatives in Mali, sent to train the Malian armed forces and assist in counterinsurgency. For European governments, the presence of Wagner Group personnel is highly problematic, since the organization is well-known to be an instrument of Moscow’s foreign and security policy. The invasion of Ukraine has made things worse, not least since the Wagner Group is directly involved in the fighting in that country, according to the British government.
Even before its apparent involvement in Ukraine, the Wagner Group was regularly accused of human rights violations in other conflict zones, particularly the Central African Republic. In early April, reports emerged of a massacre of civilians allegedly carried out by the Malian army along with Russian mercenaries, as part of “counterterrorism operations.” In European capitals, the fact that the Malian army and the Wagner Group are cooperating is bad enough; any indirect triangular collaboration would be quite unacceptable. Indeed, it would be very likely that Malian soldiers trained by German EUTM forces will at some point engage in military operations alongside the Wagner Group.
All in all, conditions for continued Bundeswehr involvement in Mali do not look good. Overall gains have been unsatisfactory, and now underlying norms—including democracy and human rights—are being called into question in the country. Russian activities make success less likely, while French withdrawal has increased security risks for German forces.
However, we need to distinguish between the two foreign missions to Mali, including their respective goals and outlooks. Continued German participation in EUTM is difficult to imagine in the current circumstances. The Malians have their new partnership with the Wagner Group, and thus have little need for EUTM training. We can expect the European Union to withdraw its entire mission from Mali. Instead, where necessary, the organization may look to upgrade its activities in neighboring countries. German soldiers are already active in Niger; since last year, their activities there have been carried out under the auspices of EUTM. Extending EUTM’s regional presence could be one option, if there is demand for this from one or more of the countries bordering Mali.
Germany’s relations with MINUSMA are more complex. German withdrawal from the mission would be understandable in the current circumstances. Coming so soon after Afghanistan, however, this would effectively admit another failure for German and European stabilization policy. The competitive international environment means strategic rivals such as Russia, China, and Turkey are keeping a close eye on European capacity to act in the Sahel. This is not to make a geopolitical argument that zones of influence must be defended at any cost. However, the turbulent international situation means that Europe’s ability to take action in its own backyard —to establish and promote stability there—will be needed more urgently than ever, but may also prove more politically palatable than previously.
Germany and Europe must clearly demonstrate to rivals and partners that they can be relied on and are capable of taking action in this context. For the West African states worst hit by the Mali crisis, a German withdrawal from MINUSMA would send a terrible message in political and security policy terms, not least because 65 percent of MINUSMA’s troops come from West African states. With regard to Mali, the strategic goal is no longer to “save” that country, but rather to prevent the entire region from being destabilized.
Within Mali itself, it may be possible to explore new political opportunities. If a concrete transition schedule is established, one obvious and important task for MINUSMA would be to assist that process, in particular in preparing for eventual elections. These are responsibilities that the UN Security Council could transfer to MINUSMA, working in cooperation with ECOWAS. The high-value military capacities offered by Germany can play a vital role in this mission, all the more so after the end of Operation Barkhane. The long shadow of the war in Ukraine should not prevent us from learning lessons from Afghanistan and from Mali. The question of why a mission like EUTM has had so little impact is as urgent as wider discussions of engagement abroad, which in this context are all too often equated with military operations.
Denis M. Tull is a Senior Associate with the Africa and Middle Program of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and a project director at Megatrends Afrika.