Building Trust Instead of Troops: Germany’s Incoming Government and European Policy in Mali

Lukas Hertel
November 08, 2021

Following the German 2021 elections, the only thing that is certain about the country’s foreign policy in Mali is that it is failing. Germany’s current policy stance disproportionately prioritizes conflict containment and military capacity-building over conflict prevention. The incoming “traffic light coalition,” consisting of the three political parties the Social Democrats (SPD), the Liberal Democrats (FDP), and the Greens, should place a greater focus on inclusive stakeholder engagement, community reconciliation, and technical and economic development assistance.

Mali’s current state of crisis traces back to 2012, when, fleeing from the NATO-led intervention in Libya, former supporters of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi entered the country. They joined the Tuareg rebel groups in their long-standing rebellion against the Malian government and overwhelmed Malian government forces. Frustrated by this defeat, the military staged a coup in April 2012, causing the country to split in half with the government controlling the South and rebels claiming the North. Ever since, jihadist groups have exploited the conflict and further destabilized the region.

Following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mali is now Germany’s largest foreign deployment. Germany deployed its military to Mali as part of two missions—the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the European Union Training Mission (EUTM). In German parliamentary debates, these deployments are often rationalized as serving to support France, who first deployed troops to its former colony on January 11, 2013, at the request of the president Dioncounda Traoré. The French troops helped prevent Mali’s total collapse and have stayed there since. A recent Bundestag vote on May 19 raised the German troop ceiling to 1,800 and extended its mission mandates until May 2022.

These deployments are necessary to prevent crimes against humanity and to protect vital European interests. Specifically, northern Mali functions as a transit point for migrants from all of Western Africa to Europe. If the economy and livelihoods were to collapse during a sustained conflict, the resulting instability could lead to an increase in refugee streams.

Notwithstanding, international efforts have failed to improve Mali’s circumstances. In recent years, competing Islamist insurgent factions, including Al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), have conquered territory in Mali and the wider region. These groups have been accused of extensive crimes, including ethnic stigmatization and extrajudicial killings. As a result, the humanitarian crisis continues to deteriorate. The concerning situation impedes the success of German foreign policy and its mission in Mali. The lack of progress can be attributed to three central factors.

First, the current German engagement does not sufficiently address the root causes of the crisis. Military training and counter-insurgency cannot resolve the ingrained ethnic distrust stemming from Mali’s colonial past and the political competition for scarce natural resources, such as farmland. Moreover, it also fails to address the lack of government capacity. Thus, Germany should expand its successful key programs that aim to strengthen decentralized inclusive governance, communal reconciliation, and the development of public infrastructure, such as the development cooperation efforts by the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and the state-stabilization programs of the German Corporation for International Cooperation, and put them at the center of European engagement with Mali. In their paper submitted to the Annual (World) Bank Conference on Africa, Asbjorn Wee, Julia Lendorfer, Jaimie Bleck, and Charlotte Yaiche argued that, instead of increased military support and counter-insurgency efforts, decentralized governance through local community structures and service delivery mechanisms may present a more sustainable approach to stabilizing the region.

Second, European forces are failing to contain violence against civilians and, at times, even contribute to it. For instance, in March, a UN investigation found that French drone strikes killed 19 civilians at a wedding in January. As a result, the European-supported counter-insurgency campaign alienates local support and increases the recruitment numbers of extremist groups, exacerbating the issues.

Third, European governments have flawed expectations of counter-insurgency and state-building efforts, promising the public short missions and expecting quick success. These expectations set missions up for failure and increase the chance of disapproval both at home and abroad. For instance, France’s Serval mission in 2013 was said to only last a few weeks but instead transitioned into Operation Barkhane, which has lasted over 8 years and was only recently announced to end by mid-2022 under the pressure of domestic pushback. Parts of the Malian public were disillusioned too, as they regarded the shift in French policy as an abandonment of the conflict. Due to the close operational reliance of German efforts on French troops, experts at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), one of Europe’s largest foreign policy think tanks, have argued that without France’s military footprint in the region, Germany would not be able to sustain its own military missions as they are currently implemented.

These failures of European forces and German foreign policy have serious consequences. For example, Mali’s government responded to Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of the phased ending of Operation Barkhane by disclosing negotiations to hire the Kremlin-affiliated Wagner Group as a more reliable security guarantor. Considering the group’s track record of destabilizing conflict zones and undermining governments across the Sahel, this could be disastrous for both Malian and European citizens.

In an attempt to prevent the Wagner Group deal, Berlin and Paris have recently declared it “contradictory” to the mandate of their current engagement, with German politicians calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the situation. Ending the European missions in Mali would not only pave the way for more instability and human suffering in the region—along with an influx of refugees to Europe—but would also further undermine the credibility of EU foreign policy at a time when it is seeking its independent identity on the global stage amid an increasingly uncertain relationship with the United States. Instead, to avoid such an outcome, European governments should set realistic expectations with their own public, deploy military only with the explicit purpose of securing local civilian development efforts, set better limits on the use of force, and demonstrate to Malian citizens that they represent the favorable alternative, thereby exerting public pressure on Mali’s government to reject the Wagner Group deal and work together with the EU on other forms of support.

Germany’s 2021 elections offer few glimmers of hope that such a change in policy is realistic. While foreign policy experts of the incoming coalition parties have affirmed their commitment to the missions in Mali, no party has put an explicit proposal on Germany’s engagement in the Sahel in their election programs. In the initial negotiations to establish a coalition, the prospective coalition parties could only agree to base their foreign, security, and development policies on values, short of any specific commitments. The incoming administration’s mandate is domestic, to leverage innovation and climate-friendly technologies to strategically reposition the national economy in a post-pandemic context and expand social security programs. Hence, the incoming administration is unlikely to expend the political and financial resources needed to drastically adjust the mission profile in Mali. Nevertheless, while they should serve a strictly supportive role, Germany’s current deployments do create opportunities for other development efforts and present an additional counter-weight to other warring factions. Although these efforts might not go as far as the proposed sustainable development programs, such as the strengthening of local government capacity and the improvement of rural public infrastructure, they still provide a better alternative to eliminating existing troop commitments without a clear strategic purpose.

Lukas Hertel is a Carlo Schmid Fellow at the World Bank. He previously finished his graduate studies in Global Governance and Diplomacy at Oxford University. His work experience includes placements at the UK Ministry of Defence, the U.S. Department of State, and the Aspen Institute Germany.