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In Mali, Macron's Afghanistan

Mali teaches the West once again that we must carefully pick our counter-terrorism battles.

France National Tribute To French Soldiers Killed In Mali At Les Invalides
President Emmanuel Macron pays his respects in front of the flag-draped coffins of thirteen French soldiers killed in Mali in late 2019. (Patrick Aventurier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The withdrawal of the French military from Mali earlier this month completed an Afghanistan-like reckoning process for President Macron. Macron cut France’s losses after nine years—better than 20—throwing in the towel on nation-building and counter-terrorism cooperation with the hopelessly corrupt Malian government.

Far off the radar for most Americans, Mali has struggled for a decade against a determined and bloody jihadist insurgency. The people of predominantly Muslim Mali are divided among numerous ethnic communities, barely united under the boot of a ruling military junta that steals funds from international foreign assistance to line its own pockets.


In pulling out, President Macron has announced France will keep military forces in neighboring Sahel countries, such as Niger, to strike against terrorists operating in Mali. This probably would have been a more realistic strategy from the start.

In response to Paris cutting aid, the junta in the capital city, Bamako, predictably has already denounced French drone strikes against terrorists as a violation of Malian sovereignty and unacceptable “neocolonialism.” In the war of words, Macron has repeatedly condemned the junta, asserting that the Malian government has “no legitimacy.” It brings back memories of President Karzai arguing with Washington about what the United States owed his tottering government in Kabul.

Like the bitter lesson learned in Afghanistan, what Mali teaches the West once again is that we must carefully pick our counter-terrorism battles. Some countries simply lack the internal capacity in their governing institutions and societies to absorb the training and foreign assistance that aims to turn them into viable security partners.

This is particularly true because these partnerships quickly expand into a larger mission than defeating our common enemy in the field. American and European government strategists follow a typical foreign-assistance script that emphasizes remaking the country: sending in NGO contractors, aid workers, and diplomats to build new institutions, such as courts and schools, from scratch; trying to retrain corrupt security forces to respect human rights and the rule of law; and attempting to impose modern Western values, such as religious tolerance and equality for women, on traditional communities.

However worthy these efforts, they often run counter to deeply ingrained local customs and would require many decades to take root, if they ever did. Meanwhile, all these Western attempts at restructuring society are taking place amid battle with a ruthless insurgency, leaving the basic counter-terrorism mission just one activity among many in a massive nation-building enterprise. One recalls with regret the pivot of the Bush White House to bringing Western values to Afghanistan in order to overcome the Taliban.


Above all, the French withdrawal from Mali should decidedly not become a cue for Washington to take on more responsibility for events in this struggling West African country whose fate, no matter how tragic, is not among the national interests of the United States. Following the French into one of their former colonies is a mistake we have seen the United States make before.

Given that Mali is currently under a military dictatorship, Washington for now is keeping its distance. When some kind of token democratic government returns to Bamako, however—taking into account the ongoing French-Malian bitterness—pressure will mount for Washington to expand its presence in this part of the Sahel. Even now, members of Congress have written the White House urging more U.S. involvement in West Africa, particularly Mali, asserting: “The global community, with leadership from the United States, needs a new approach [in the region] that incorporates more holistic, long-term objectives centered around governance and institution building.”

The situation has been complicated by the Bamako junta’s decision, in late 2021, to invite in the Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries tied to the Kremlin, to help reinforce the fledgling dictatorship and battle the jihadists. The Wagner Group has already been accused of carrying out atrocities against Malian citizens. The Russian presence is a perfect pretext for the Biden administration to ready the U.S. Africa Command for a new muscular presence in Mali. AFRICOM has already suggested to the junta’s leadership that if the country could get back on the democratic path, U.S. military assistance would be available.

Even without foolishly taking on a wider security mission in Mali, the United States has already committed more than $690 million for FY 2016-20 to USAID programs there. That level of civilian aid is more than enough. If there is a new security commitment in the future, after the junta is gone, the fighting should continue under the French, assisted by the U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali known as MINUSMA. 

Recently, Secretary of State Blinken laid out the Biden administration’s “Sub-Saharan African Strategy” indicating the U.S. would focus on the “Coastal West African countries of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo.” Blinken was indicating, by obvious omission, that the U.S. would only provide conventional development aid to the more stable governments in that region and perhaps—wisely—not provide any new military assistance in Mali. Let’s hope the Biden administration can resist another proxy war against the Russians.

The crucial test, however, will come if and when democracy returns to Mali. A new government in Bamako, with the blessing of the French and the European Union, will almost surely petition the White House for a stepped-up AFRICOM role. Macron has hinted about it himself. Perhaps by then the 118th Congress will be in place to make sure that such an overreaching commitment does not get funded.

Washington should resist this tempting but counterproductive great-power game, and conservatives in a new Congress need to act to restrain AFRICOM. This is true regardless of the Wagner Group’s presence and the oft-mentioned consternation about losing the great mineral deposits that Mali holds. It remains true even in the likely event that radical jihadists seize power in Bamako and gain a new base in the Sahel. It is not because we want to show any weakness vis-à-vis our enemies or express antipathy toward this forlorn country. It is because, especially after Afghanistan, we recognize the nature of the challenge. Because this faraway conflict is not directly in the U.S. national interest, we should resist now Washington’s oft-demonstrated hubris that could launch us into a quagmire in which we have neither the finesse nor the staying power to achieve a successful outcome.