The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France’s drawdown in West Africa fuels local extremists’ hope for a Taliban-style victory

Fighters loyal to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State see the Taliban’s ‘patience’ against foreign powers as a winning strategy

Soldiers in the French Army monitor a rural area during the Barkhane operation in northern Burkina Faso on Nov. 12, 2019. (Michele Cattani/AFP/Getty Images)

DAKAR, Senegal — As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this month, one of the most notorious extremists in West Africa praised his “brothers” and what he cast as their successful strategy.

“Two decades of patience,” said Iyad Ag Ghaly, head of an al-Qaeda affiliate that aims to conquer Mali. The rare public statement illustrated how Afghanistan’s collapse has lifted morale and offered fresh motivation to militant groups driving rapidly growing insurgencies across West Africa.

Fighters across the continent — many of whom have professed loyalty to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State — have publicly celebrated the Taliban’s takeover as the result of perseverance against the United States and other Western armed forces. Now that France has announced plans to start slashing its military presence in West Africa by about half over the next year, some who have endured nearly a decade of extremist violence see a chilling parallel.

“I fear that we will meet the same fate as the Afghans,” said Azidane Ag Ichakane, 30, the president of a youth group in Bamako, the Malian capital.

The Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover after the U.S. departure from Afghanistan has cranked up pressure on France, which has about 5,100 troops in West Africa, the most of any overseas partner. French President Emmanuel Macron said in July that his country’s military drawdown was set to begin “in the coming weeks.” Three military bases are slated to close in Mali’s north, the heart of the crisis.

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Macron has offered no public update since the Taliban claimed Kabul.

“All Western countries, including France, of course, would be well advised to learn the lessons of this bitter defeat,” said French Gen. Marc Foucaud, who led a major counterterrorism operation in Mali in 2014. “President Macron will certainly do everything to avoid meeting the same fate as our U.S. friends.”

French forces landed in the region eight years ago at the request of Malian officials, who warned that al-Qaeda fighters were about to storm Bamako. The extremists have since scattered and spread, and Paris pledged to hold the line as Mali built up its own defense capabilities.

But the militants have since gained strength, igniting insurgencies in Burkina Faso and neighboring Niger, while Mali plunged into political chaos. Over the last year, the nation endured two coups d’etat in nine months. The military officer who toppled both presidents is now in charge.

At least 1,852 Malians have died in the violence since January, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, and the conflict shows no sign of abating.

Regional militaries, meanwhile, have reported a lack of resources and manpower to vanquish the threat. Some 4,000 extremists in the region regularly exact mass casualties and steal equipment.

“If France is to withdraw in a drastic manner as the U.S. did, the balance of power is likely to shift in favor of the jihadists,” said Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, a West Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group in Niger.

The Taliban’s win is a gift to their propaganda machines, he added. JNIM, the biggest al-Qaeda affiliate in West Africa, has hailed the Taliban’s deal-cutting skills with the U.S. in several statements.

“It’s certainly inspirational and energizing for them,” Ibrahim said.

France’s military operations in West Africa are unpopular in Paris, and Macron, facing reelection next year, has said the troops were never meant to stay forever. Critics say France’s presence deters dialogue between extremist leaders and the Malian government.

The current mission, known as Operation Barkhane, will be replaced by a smaller team of Special Forces. The French leader has called on the United States and European partners to supply troops to the effort, but there has been little enthusiasm for that idea in the region.

“We must find our way out of the cliche that the West has the solution,” said Boubacar Ba, a security analyst in Bamako.

The crisis in the Sahel, the semiarid belt just south of the Sahara Desert, endured a record number of attacks in 2020, according to ACLED, with Mali and Niger tallying more civilian casualties than ever before. This year, the battle has edged toward Ivory Coast, Benin and Senegal. Attacks near or just over the borders have ticked up.

“Regardless of the French presence, the situation is unlikely to improve in the near-future and the outlook is grim,” said Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at ACLED.

Fighting erupted in 2012 when separatists in Mali’s north forged a shaky partnership with al-Qaeda commanders looking to expand their territory. The extremists managed to exert control over several towns and cities, including storied Timbuktu, before France intervened.

That same year, Paris was among the first NATO allies to pull troops from Afghanistan after an insider attack killed five French soldiers. The departure met widespread public approval in France.

Macron expressed no regret last week in a televised address. He vowed that France would stand by Afghanistan’s civil society to defend “our principles, our values,” though he did not specify how that would be possible under Taliban rule.

Ultimately, he said, “the destiny of Afghanistan lies in its hands.”

Noack reported from Paris. Borso Tall in Dakar contributed to this report.

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