In Mali, fears of sharing Afghanistan's fate

Afghanistan's fall to the Taliban after a US pullout has raised the spectre of a similar drama in the West African state of Mali, where France has pledged a military drawdown next year.

"Should we brace for the same scenario as in Kabul?" was the headline Wednesday in the Malian daily Le Soir de Bamako.

Mali is the epicentre of a brutal jihadist conflict in the Sahel to which France has committed troops, jets and drones to shore up fragile allies.

Paris first intervened in Mali in 2013, beating back a jihadist advance from the desert north of the country.

But the Islamists regrouped and spilled into central Mali, as well as neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, inflaming ethnic tensions along the way.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died and more than two million people have been displaced in the impoverished region, despite the presence of thousands of foreign troops.

In June, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a major scaleback of the French military presence.

France will close its bases in northern Mali in Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu by early 2022.

Between 2,500 and 3,000 French troops are expected to remain deployed across the vast semi-arid region, down from the 5,100 currently on the ground.

Mohamed Dicko, a 24-year-old medical student in Bamako, said insecurity in Mali was worsening each year.

It is only thanks to French and UN forces that "the major cities in the north are still under state control," he said.

"Without the presence of the French army, a town like Gao can fall in less than half an hour," he said.

- Weak state -

Mali's current cycle of violence began when separatists revolted in the north in 2012, in a rebellion that was then commandeered by jihadists.

The Islamists capitalised on weak government across much of the poor country to set down roots.

Groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda or Islamic State also spread into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

But Mali's government is weak and has a reputation for corruption, and its armed forces are poorly trained and underpaid -- a scenario that has parallels in Afghanistan.

"Dread is deepening in the region, but the context of the Sahel and Afghanistan are very different," said Baba Dakono, a Bamako-based political analyst.

"But there is a joint lesson -- whatever the firepower that is deployed, military action alone cannot be the solution."

Ideology explains "only a small part" of the motivations of Sahel jihadists, and "political demands and frustrations with the state" are bigger, he suggested.

Some in Mali -- including the ruling military -- support dialogue with the militants in order to find a political solution to the conflict. But France has fiercely opposed this.

"We need to open discussions, from the ground up, with all communities, including the pariahs of the armed groups," Dakono said.

- Coup within a coup -

Many commentators are pessimistic.

The military toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020 after weeks of protests over perceived corruption and failure to stop the conflict.

But initial hopes of a new political dawn and a step towards prosperity have faded.

Jihadist attacks have continued, and there has been little in the way of reform.

The new strongman, Colonel Assimi Goita, has pledged to stage elections in February 2022. But that deadline already appears difficult to meet.

He did not even mention the date during a televised event to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the coup on Wednesday. Instead, Goita promised "transparent elections with indisputable results".

There are also doubts about Goita himself. In May, the colonel dismissed the interim civilian leaders the military installed after the August coup, and later set himself up as interim president.

France's Macron blasted the manoeuvre as a "coup d'etat within a coup d'etat".

Moussa Tchangari, a civil society leader in Niger, said that as in Afghanistan, a combination of foreign armies and corrupt local leaders cannot win the war in the Sahel.

"This war, if it has to be won, will only be won by drawing up a new political and social contract," he said.

The deal has to "restore sovereignty to the people and create the conditions for dignified life for the millions of people who are deprived of it today."