Assessment of the Efficacy of the French Military Intervention in the Northern Mali Conflict

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.


Greg Olsen is a cyber security professional and postgraduate researcher at University of Leicester doing his PhD on peacekeeping and civil wars.  He can be found on Twitter at @gtotango.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessment of the Efficacy of the French Military Intervention in the Northern Mali Conflict

Date Originally Written:  April 7, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  May 13, 2019.

Summary:  The French military intervention in the Northern Mali Conflict in 2013 (Operation Serval) was a military success and met the criteria for success established by civilian leadership, however, it did not alter the trajectory of conflict in the region.  It subsequently became conjoined to a United Nations liberal peacebuilding effort in Mali with low prospects for rapid success, resulting in a lengthy “forever war” in the Sahel.

Text:  In January 2012, an insurgency broke out in the Azawad region of northern Mali, as the Tuareg’s fought for an independent or at least autonomous homeland.  The Northern Mali Conflict began as a classic example of an ethnic conflict in a weak state[1].  However, the chaotic conflict enabled multiple domestic and transnational Islamist insurgent groups to enter it in the summer of 2012. By fall 2012, Mali was partitioned between multiple factions.  But in January 2013, the conflict entered a new phase towards either an Islamist victory or a Hobbesian conflict between multiple groups in a failed state[2].  In likely response to the United Nations (UN) Security Council authorizing an Economic Community of West African States military intervention in Mali in December 2012 (African-led International Support Mission to Mali aka AFISMA), Islamist insurgents launched an offensive which threatened to defeat the central government of Mali and capture the capital of Bamako.  Due to a slow response from other African regional security partners and intergovernmental organizations, the French government determined that it had to intervene.

Domestic political considerations in France were, as always, part of the calculus of intervention.  Mali was an opportunity for French President Francois Hollande to improve his popularity, which had been in decline from the moment he took office, but there were also real security concerns around transnational terrorism justifying intervention.  Hollande announced on January 11, 2013, the following three objectives for the intervention: (1) stop terrorist aggression, (2) protect French nationals, and (3) restore territorial integrity to Mali.  The operation would be limited in duration and not an open-ended commitment to occupation or nation-building.

French operations began with the insertion of special operations forces and an air offensive.  At the same time, ground forces were moved into theater from neighboring states and France with the help of other nations in transport, aerial refueling, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  Major ground operations commenced on January 15.  In total, France deployed approximately 4,000 troops to the conflict and had achieved the initial three military objectives by February. Withdrawal was announced on March 8.  According to a RAND Corporation study, Operation Serval was a high-risk operation, because it involved a small expeditionary force waging maneuver warfare with low logistical support and consisted of platoons and companies pulled from multiple units.  But in the end, Operation Serval demonstrated the viability of a force pieced together at the sub-battalion level into a competent fighting force suited for counterinsurgency warfare[3].  This piecemeal approach to deployment is a very different model than expeditionary deployment by the U.S. Marine Corps which deploys a complete combined arms unit around a reinforced division, brigade, or battalion, depending on the mission.

French military operations in Mali did not end with Operation Serval.  In April 2013, the UN Security Council authorized a Chapter VII (i.e., peace enforcement) mission, Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali aka MINUSMA.  Additionally, UN Security Council resolution 2100 authorized “French troops, within the limits of their capacities and areas of deployment, to use all necessary means…to intervene in support of elements of MINUSMA when under imminent and serious threat[4].”  As a practical matter, France’s troops became the chief counter-terrorism arm of MINUSMA.  

After announced withdrawal, France relabeled its intervention to Operation Barkhane (approximately 3,000 troops deployed) and spanned the G5 Sahel in the countries of Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Mali.  This continued deployment is a repeated pattern seen in civil wars.  With no peace to keep, the UN relies on a parallel “green helmet” force alongside “blue helmet” peacekeepers to maintain security and assist in maintaining order in a conflict zone (e.g., Unified Task Force aka UNITAF in Somalia, the Australian led International Force East Timor aka INTERFET in East Timor).  

MINUSMA followed the standard liberal peacebuilding playbook: disarmament, demobilization, reinsertion of combatants; security sector reform; some form of “truth and reconciliation commission;” constitutional democratic governance; re-establishment of state sovereignty over the territory; and rebuilding civil society.  The UN playbook of liberal peacebuilding was a qualified success in both Cambodia[5] and East Timor[6], where the UN supervised the withdrawal of foreign armies (Vietnam and Indonesia respectively) and was in effect the civilian administration and military.  The UN successfully ran free elections to bring a new democratically elected government into power.  

From a conventional military perspective, Operation Serval was a success, routing multiple irregular forces on the battlefield and securing the central government and French nationals in Mali in a month-long campaign.  It also demonstrated the viability of sub-battalion-level deployment of expeditionary units.  However, Operation Serval did not address any of the underlying state weakness that enabled the insurgency in the first place.  Instead, the French Army has become embroiled in a “forever war” as the UN attempts to build a liberal state from a failed state, under very different circumstances from their previous successes in Cambodia and East Timor.

In Mali, multiple non-state actors—various coalitions of Tuareg clans, and multiple domestic and transnational Islamist insurgent groups—pose a threat to the incumbent government.  The French are in a sense captive to a UN playbook that has worked in cases dissimilar to the situation in Mali.  According to the opportunity model of civil war, it is state capacity, not the redress of grievances, that cause civil wars.  There is an inverted U-shaped relationship between government and civil war.  Strong autocracies don’t have civil wars and strong democracies don’t have civil wars[7].  It is the middle ground of anocracies that have wars, because they are weak institutionally.  This weakness explains the difficulty that post-colonial states have in making transitions from autocracy to multi-party democracy[8], and explains the durability of rebel victories[9].  Because the UN is transitioning an autocracy, Mali will be vulnerable.  Therefore, France and any multilateral partners whom they enlist to support them are set up as the de facto guarantor of security in Mali for a long time to come.


Endnotes:

[1] Hironaka, A. (2005). Neverending Wars: The International Community, Weak States, and the Perpetuation of Civil War. (pp. 80-86) Cambridge: Harvard University.

[2] Kraxberger, B. M. (2007). Failed States: Temporary Obstacles to Democratic Diffusion or Fundamental Holes in the World Political Map?. Third World Quarterly 28(6):1055-1071.

[3] Shurkin, M. (2014). France’s War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

[4] United Nations Security Council (2013, April 25). Resolution 2100. Retrieved 7 April 2013 from http://unscr.com/en/resolutions/doc/2100

[5] Doyle, M. W. and Suzuki, A. (1995). Transitional Authority in Cambodia. In The United Nations and Civil Wars. Weiss, T. G., ed. (pp. 127-149). Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

[6] Howard, L. M. (2008). UN Peacekeeping in Civil Wars. (pp. 260-298) Cambridge: Cambridge University.

[7] Bates, R. H. (2008). State Failure. Annual Review of Political Science 11:1-12.

[8] Huntington, S. P. (1968). Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven: Yale University.

[9] Toft, M. D. (2010). Securing the Peace: The Durable Settlement of Civil Wars. Princeton: Princeton University.

Assessment Papers France Greg Olsen Mali Small Wars Journal Writing Contest

Assessment of Opération Turquoise: The Paradoxical French-led Humanitarian Military Intervention During the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda

Ross Conroy is a researcher and program designer for Komaza Kenya, a social enterprise focused on poverty reduction through sustainable timber production.  Ross also serves as Public Relations advisor for Sudan Facts, a start-up which intends to build investigative journalistic capacity in Sudan.  Ross studied Political Science at the University of New Hampshire, and wrote his capstone on the French military intervention during the Rwandan Genocide.  He spent most of his senior year in Rwanda doing field and archival research to supplement this study.  Ross later attained his Master’s degree in African Studies from Stanford University, where he focused on politics in Central Africa and continued his research on French involvement during the 1994 Genocide.  Ross can be found on Twitter @rossconroy or at rconroy7@outlook.com.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessment of Opération Turquoise: The Paradoxical French-led Humanitarian Military Intervention During the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda

Date Originally Written:  February 12, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  May 14, 2018.

Summary:   In response to escalating genocidal violence in Rwanda in April 1994, France launched Opération Turquoise for ostensibly humanitarian purposes.  However, much evidence has implicated this mission, and France, in the genocide and subsequent violence.  By examining archives, interviewing genocide survivors, and compiling testimonies of French soldiers, a more clear, and far more sinister, picture of Opération Turquoise emerges.

Text:  The French-led Opération Turquoise, mobilized by the United Nations (UN) Security Council through Resolution 929, was controversial from its genesis.  The debate leading up to the final vote on the resolution was riddled with arguments about France’s true intentions.  Having been the main sponsors of the Hutu regime that was now organizing and perpetrating genocide against the Tutsi minority, an abrupt change in France’s policy was viewed with suspicion.  Publicly, France argued that violence in Rwanda had escalated to the point that it necessitated international intervention on humanitarian grounds.  The wording of the resolution seemed to confirm this, stating that the mission was “aimed at contributing, in an impartial way, to the security and protection of displaced persons, refugees and civilians at risk in Rwanda[1].”  However, due to concerns over France’s intentions, and the proposed departure from the Chapter VI mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) and UNAMIR II, five countries abstained from the final vote[2].  Rather than supplying and funding the existing UNAMIR mission, France wanted a Chapter VII mandate over which they had near complete jurisdiction.  When the mission was eventually condoned by the Security Council, France mobilized their force and, as some countries had feared, used it to promote their interests.  Rather than protecting Tutsis from the genocidal regime, Opération Turquoise was co-opted to allow the perpetrators to continue their campaign of violence and eventually escape the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) advance by fleeing into neighboring Zaire[3].  The results of this would prove disastrous.

The origins of Opération Turquoise were rooted in the close ties between then French President François Mitterrand and his Rwandan counterpart Juvénal Habyarimana.  The Technical Military Assistance Agreement signed between the two countries after Habyarimana came to power in the 1970s solidified this relationship by formally incorporating Rwanda into the linguistic and cultural sphere of la francophonie and promising economic aid and military protection[4].  Following this agreement, military aid was passed for decades to the Rwandan army and its militias directly through the Quai D’Orsay, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  These same weapons were later put to use exterminating the Tutsi minority.

In October 1990, Rwanda was invaded by Rwandese rebels from Uganda who wanted a return to their country of origin.  Due to xenophobic policies of the Rwandan regime, these Rwandese rebels had long been denied this opportunity.  The French, fearing an incursion from what they saw as ‘the anglophone bloc,’ rushed to the aid of their francophone ally.  The rhetoric of French politicians at the time indicated that the Fashoda Syndrome, the inherent French fear of francophone influence being supplanted by anglophone influence, motivated France to support the Rwandan regime, and solidified ties between the two countries further[5].

After the assassination of President Habyarimana in April 1994, it quickly became clear that the violence engulfing Rwanda was of an unspeakable magnitude; a genocide was unfolding.  Despite this, France declined to act, not wishing to aid the RPF in the fight against their erstwhile ally, the Rwandan regime.  As it became clear that the Rwandan government was failing in its fight against the RPF, France chose to intervene under the guise of a much-needed humanitarian mission.  The UN had little choice, given the dearth of alternatives, and accepted the French offer of assistance.

The French originally conceived the mission as a means to halt the advance of the RPF militarily and assist the government of Rwanda in retaking the capital, Kigali[6].  However, it soon became evident that this position was untenable as the evidence of genocide mounted.  The goal of Opération Turquoise was thus altered to aid the Rwandan government forces in fleeing the country to Zaire, with the intention to preserve the government and its hierarchy intact to pursue future power-sharing agreements[7].  It was a final, frantic attempt to avoid losing influence in the region, and one that would have devastating consequences.

In the process of assisting the genocidal regime, France often neglected to protect the Tutsi whom they were charged with safeguarding.  There is irrefutable evidence that the French demonstrated gross negligence of their mandate by abandoning thousands to die in various locations around the country, most notably at Bisesero[8][9].  Indeed, numerous reports cite French soldiers trading sexual favors for food and medical supplies, raping, and even killing Rwandan citizens[10].  The French further neglected to disarm Rwandan troops and militias whom they escorted to Zaire, and in some cases supplied them with food, weapons, and vehicles[11].  These same Rwandan forces would later profiteer in the Zairean refugee camps, syphoning humanitarian aid intended for victims of genocide.  As the refugee camps were often not the internationally required 50 miles from the border of Rwanda, the ex-Rwandan Armed Forces and militias were able to use the camps as bases and launch a devastating and deadly insurgency back into Rwanda, killing thousands[12].  In response to the insurgency, and renewed killings of Tutsi in Zaire, the new RPF-led Rwandan government invaded Zaire, setting in motion the Congo Wars, the most deadly series of conflicts worldwide since the two World Wars.  Years of suffering, disease, and death can be traced back to the decision made by the French to escort the génocidaires to Zaire and continue to supply and support them in a vain attempt to cling to their influence in the region.

Ultimately, Opération Turquoise failed on two fronts: It failed to maintain the integrity and legitimacy of the former Rwandan regime and also failed to uphold its mandate to protect victims of genocide.  Although it is impossible to establish a direct causal relationship between violence in the Great Lakes Region following Opération Turquoise and the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis, there is ample evidence that Opération Turquoise exacerbated the humanitarian situation.  Opération Turquoise, conceived as a humanitarian mission, thus paradoxically contributed to one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern history in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Endnotes:

Note: Some names have been changed to protect the identities of interview subjects. 

[1] United Nations Security Council (SC), Resolution 929. (1994, June 22). Opération Turquoise. Retrieved April 22, 2016 from https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N94/260/27/PDF/N9426027.pdf?OpenElement

[2] Schweigman, D. (2001). The Authority of the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter: Legal Limits and the Role of the International Court of Justice. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.

[3] Twenty Years after Genocide France and Rwanda Give Different Versions of History. (2014, April 11) Retrieved February 28, 2016 from http://www.english.rfi.fr/africa/20140410-twenty-years-after-genocide-france-and-rwanda-give-different-versions-history

[4] Totten, S, and Sherman, M. (2005). Genocide at the Millennium. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

[5] Simon, M. (1998) Operation Assurance: The Greatest Intervention That Never Happened. The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. Retrieved April 12, 2016 from http://sites.tufts.edu/jha/archives/123.

[6] Melvern, L. (2009). A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide. London: Zed.

[7] Mukasarasi, J. (2016, April 17). Personal Interview.

[8] Assemblée Nationale. (1998, December 15). Rapport d’information de MM. Pierre Brana et Bernard Cazeneuve, déposé en application de l’article 145 du Règlement par la mission d’information de la commission de la Défense, sur les opérations militaires menées par la France, d’autres pays et l’ONU au Rwanda entre 1990 et 1994. Paris: French National Assembly.

[9] De Vulpian, L & Prungnaud, T. Silence Turquoise. Paris: France. Don Quichotte.

[10] Mvuyekure, A. (2016, April 16). Personal Interview.

[11] Des Forges, A. (1999). Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda. New York: Human Rights Watch.

[12] Gribbin, R. (2005). In the Aftermath of Genocide: The U.S. Role in Rwanda. Lincoln, NE: IUniverse.

Assessment Papers France Mass Killings Ross Conroy Rwanda United Nations