Sahel: The forgotten lessons of Afghan failure


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Now that what was said in private has become public, namely that the end of the fight against the jihadists in the Sahel is impossible to predict and that the French government cannot assume an endless war in front of its public opinion, it is advisable to reflect to the mistakes that have led to the current impasse.

Beyond the errors of political and military strategy, French military engagement in this part of the world can be explained by the forgetting of two essential lessons. However, these two lessons are common knowledge.

You can’t win asymmetric wars

In France, this lesson has been known since the Indochina war. Moreover, the same mistake was tragically repeated by the United States in Vietnam (when there was the French precedent) and, more recently, in Afghanistan (when there was the Soviet precedent).

Although the impossibility for democracies to win asymmetric wars has therefore been known for a long time, French governments since Nicolas Sarkozy seem to have forgotten it. If the necessity of the current war against terrorism (that is to say against radical Islamism) is difficult to contest, the modalities of this war are largely. However, one of these modalities decided by the French authorities was the military engagement in asymmetric wars, in Afghanistan first, then in Mali.

In Afghanistan, it was above all, for the government of Nicolas Sarkozy, to get closer to the American neoconservatives and to strengthen the transatlantic relationship. In Mali, it was for the government of François Hollande to avoid the victory of the jihadists and a regional contagion effect. If the French army won the first battle with Operation Serval, it now knows that it is incapable of winning the war.

The original conflict was regionalized by spreading to the very fragile Burkina Faso and metastasized in a plurality of local conflicts which take more and more an interethnic turn. This conflictual dynamic, which the “3 D approach” (Defense, Development, Diplomacy) has failed to contain, involves high risks for France: cooperation of the French army with armies committing war crimes; rejection by local populations of the French military presence and exacerbation of Francophobia on the continent; risk for the French army of burrs and of being manipulated and trained reluctantly in interethnic settling of scores, etc. All of which reminds us that, for having wanted to protect the Habyarimana regime in Rwanda, France found itself involved in the last genocide of the 20th century.e century.

Not winning an asymmetric conflict in the medium term is getting bogged down; and getting bogged down means taking the risks mentioned and having to justify more and more human losses in front of public opinion. Just as, in 2008, the Uzbin ambush forced the government of Nicolas Sarkozy to arbitrate between its desire for rapprochement with Washington and the impact of the losses on public opinion, the increasing number of soldiers killed in Mali forced Emmanuel Macron’s government to rethink military engagement in the Sahel as the deadline for the next election draws closer.

These two governments presented to the public opinion these “foreign operations” as a classic war, that is to say a war which must be waged for the security of the nation. But, for many, these foreign operations are more a matter of foreign policy than of national security policy. France’s security seems less at stake in Afghanistan and the Sahel than its influence on the international scene. What a senior officer summed up by declaring: “France without Barkhane is Italy. ”

However, this policy is today doubly losing: on the domestic level, the human cost of the policy of international rank is difficult to defend in front of the public opinion; and, on the external level, the military interventionism of the French authorities increases Francophobia in Africa – where France has already lost the battle of hearts and minds – and would arouse new terrorist vocations. Engaging in asymmetric conflicts is therefore a counterproductive modality of the war on terrorism. In the wake of the American government, which is negotiating its exit from the Afghan conflict with the Taliban, the French government has just rediscovered in the XXIe century a tragic lesson of the XXe.

We cannot reform neo-patrimonial governance by decree

In sub-Saharan Africa in general and in the Sahel in particular, the governance of states is neopatrimonial. For at least thirty years, a great deal of research has highlighted the functioning of the neo-patrimonial state (private grabbing of public goods by the ruling elite and essentially patronage-based political practice) and its deleterious effects.

In the long run, the functioning of the neo-patrimonial state leads to the insidious disintegration of public services, the criminalization of ruling elites, the intensification of power struggles and the neutralization of international aid. This is largely diverted from its initial purpose and serves above all for the survival of the country’s political elites. It is equivalent to filling a barrel that others empty, especially when it takes the form of budgetary aid, which is more and more frequent. In 2020, the demonstration of the link between budget aid disbursements and the swelling of offshore accounts cost Penny Goldberg, the chief economist of the World Bank, which speaks volumes about the omerta that reigns in circles. international aid.

While donors realized in the 1990s that the neo-patrimonial governance of African states was at the heart of their problems, their efforts to reform or change this governance have rarely been crowned with success. According to the benchmark assessments of governance in Africa (that of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and that of the World Bank), after an improvement in governance from 2010 to 2015, the latter has stagnated. In 2019, according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the overall state of governance in Africa even regressed.

In the Sahel, this bad governance has been exposed and spares no sector: the proliferation of trafficking in drugs, arms, gold and migrants with the complicity of those in power; the notorious relations of the President of Mali dismissed by the putschists in August 2020 with the Corsican mafia; her son’s extravagant lifestyle; embezzlement at the Niger Ministry of Defense, etc.

If the diagnosis of neo-patrimonial governance is well known, on the other hand the failure of care methods is not. Calling for the action of international donors (one of the “3D”) to focus on governance and state reform is to ignore the last twenty years of governance reforms promoted by donors. Many programs of institutional change have been implemented and billions of dollars have been spent without convincing results. Most of the evaluations of these programs highlight the cosmetic nature of the changes by decree and the gap between the texts adopted and their application. Some African regimes use the argument of sovereignty to refuse reforms or lead strategies to bog them down. International aid has demonstrated its inability to change the neo-patrimonial state. Therefore, if we consider that one of the essential conditions for defeating radical Islamism in the Sahel is to ask the rulers to implement profound changes that go against their direct interests, we understand why the victory is doubtful.

French leaders have ignored / forgotten that one cannot win asymmetric wars and that international aid has failed to change the governance of African states – that is, two of the 3D (Defense and Development) were doomed to failure. For having forgotten these well-known lessons, the French government today finds itself in the same impasse as the American government.


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