News | War / Peace - West Africa The Bundeswehr in Mali

Creating new problems while solving none


[Translate to en:] Ein Bundeswehrsoldat steht mit Maschinengewehr hinter einem Panzerfahrzeug mit deutscher Fahne.
A Bundeswehr soldier stands at the airport near the base in Gao, northern Mali. picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

On 19 May, the German parliament voted to extend the military deployment of the German Army, or Bundeswehr, in Mali and the neighbouring countries of the Sahel region. In Mali, as in Afghanistan, the German government is counting on using military means to create the conditions for peace and development. Yet what failed catastrophically in Afghanistan will not work in Mali, either. The German government must apply the lessons learned in Afghanistan and withdraw the Bundeswehr from Mali.

After 20 years of deployment, the Bundeswehr is expected to withdraw from Afghanistan by 1 July 2021. Following the motto “development requires security”, military interventions in Afghanistan have been combined with civilian measures and development cooperation from the very beginning. This has had disastrous consequences.

None of the country’s problems have been solved. Afghanistan exemplifies the failure of the military war on terror and it also shows the failure of the “network-centric approach” pursued by the German governments of recent years. Combining civilian aid with military interventions is counterproductive because it means that aid is not neutral. Development workers told me this in Afghanistan in 2010 and it has been confirmed, for example, by Reinhard Erlös from Kinderhilfe Afghanistan.

But instead of drawing lessons from this, the same arguments are currently turning the Sahel region into a combat zone. For eight years, the Bundeswehr has been involved in two military missions in Mali and neighbouring countries. With up to 1,700 soldiers in active duty there, it is currently the largest deployment of the Bundeswehr—with no end in sight.

Christine Buchholz, MP for Die Linke, is a member of the Defence Committee and deputy member of the Human Rights Committee of the German Parliament.

Translated by Juan Diego Otero and Eve Richens for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced that the mission would take its “time”. However, the German government is not only planning for “a long duration” but also to steadily expand the mission. As early as 2020, the Bundestag decided to gradually expand EUTM Mali to the whole of Mali and—after the prerequisites had been met at the European level—to all G5 Sahel states (Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad). The main aim was to create an environment in Burkina Faso and Niger where the Bundeswehr could provide military advice and training in the future, as is already taking place in Niger, where Bundeswehr Special Forces are training Nigerien Special Forces as part of the Gazelle Mission,  under the umbrella of EUTM Mali. The number of personnel was already increased in 2020, from 350 to 450 soldiers. This year, the limit is to be increased again by 150.

Since 2020, Bundeswehr soldiers from the European training mission EUTM Mali have been allowed to accompany Malian soldiers into combat, blurring the boundaries between training and combat operations. Additionally, this summer, the Bundeswehr will take over leadership of the European Union Training Mission and thus assume greater responsibility for its accomplishments, or the lack thereof.

At 1,100, the number of German soldiers participating in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) remains high. The UN peacekeeping mission is tasked with supporting the implementation of the 2015 peace treaty, which was signed under major pressure from the international community. Mali analyst Charlotte Wiedemann argues: “Instead of disempowering the armed groups, the official peace process for northern Mali has led to the multiplication of militias. The boundaries between allies, jihadists, and major criminals are blurred. Meanwhile, in central Mali, jihadism is intermingling with social revolt.” The peace agreement which is to be implemented by MINUSMA is thus creating new conflicts instead of solving existing ones.

Meanwhile, debates in Germany about the Bundeswehr’s deployment in Mali are completely detached from realities on the ground. For example, in the parliamentary debate on the extension of the missions Michael Roth, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, praised German engagement stating that: “Together with our European partners, we are making a contribution to the stabilization of the Sahel region that is highly valued in the region”. That way, Germany and its partners would create the preconditions for conflict solution. EUTM Mali, and with it the Bundeswehr, would play a “decisive role” in this process.

This is false. Military interventions do not bring about security. The failure of the military approach to creating security, as has long been evident in Afghanistan, is already becoming apparent in Mali. 2020 was the deadliest year on record in the Sahel region, where 2,400 civilians were killed. Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and other actors in the region report that since the end of 2019, over 600 killings have been attributed to security forces from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

Exacerbated by war and the climate crisis, conflict and environmental problems are displacing more and more people in the region. Since 2019, the number of internally displaced people has quadrupled to two million. Concurrently, Mali’s military budget has tripled since 2013. Even pro-government think tanks assess Germany and France’s military interventions negatively. In February 2021, Wolfram Lacher of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik summed up the situation as “more muddled than even the most pessimistic observers could have imagined in 2013” because the Bundeswehr is playing a leading role in arming and intensifying fighting in the region.

However, the German government has no interest in an honest assessment. It does not care about the interests and needs of Malians. For the German government, the Mali missions are practical military training opportunities, preparing Bundeswehr forces for larger interventions in the future: the idea is to field test training and to gain operational experience, as well as to test equipment under adverse conditions. The goal is a globally operational army capable of enforcing and safeguarding geopolitical and economic interests. In doing so, the German government also hopes to secure its place in the European power structure and its position in the so-called “international” community.

France, the former colonial power, has more than 5,000 soldiers in Mali. With Operation Barkhane, France is waging a bloody “war on terror”. French President Emmanuel Macron is adopting martial tones, stating that his country will do everything possible to “decapitate” terrorist groups. France also wants to call on other European states, pressuring them to take responsibility for this fight.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has so far ruled out the participation of the Bundeswehr in the French fight against insurgency. For the German government, however, the French war on terror and the Bundeswehr missions go hand in hand. In its as yet unpublished strategy paper for the Sahel region, the deployment of the “partners” is praised, especially “in those sub-areas in which Germany does not participate”. This also includes the “military fight against terrorism”.

German and French forces are already working closely together and sharing the workload on the ground. The German Air Force regularly supports French fighter and reconnaissance aircraft with mid-air refuelling and by transporting troops from West African countries to Mali. The German Heron reconnaissance drone provides aerial images that can also be accessed by France, which supplies troops to MINUSMA. In this way, the Bundeswehr indirectly supports French combat operations. The “networked approach” serves as a cover to give the war in the Sahel region a humanitarian face and thus—as in Afghanistan for the last twenty years—to enable and normalize military actions.

The consequences of this fatal strategy are evident in the village of Bounty in central Mali where according to an investigation by MINUSMA, 22 civilians died when French fighter jets from the Barkhane anti-terrorist operation bombed a wedding party in early January. The French government dismissed the report and continued to claim that only “terrorists” were killed. The German government remained silent about the incident, intent on continuing to build a “trusting” cooperation with its partners.

Fuelled by attacks like the one in Bounty, anti-French sentiment is growing in Mali, which is also affecting the safety of Bundeswehr soldiers. During a briefing by the Federal Minister of Defence, a Bundeswehr soldier stationed in Mali said that to increase their safety, they always visibly stuck German flags on their vehicles during civilian outings so that they would not be mistaken for French nationals.

Malians’ discontent came to a head in last year’s mass movement, in the course of which the Western-backed president was deposed by the Malian military. Under great pressure from international actors, a military-dominated transitional government was formed in September 2020. It has been heavily criticized by Malian oppositional forces, especially the Malian Left. The international community is focusing on the restoration of the status quo and is calling for quick elections. In Mali, however, this is met with great criticism.

To learn from the Afghan catastrophe is to understand that democracy, social progress, and security, cannot be imposed by wars that represent foreign interests. In Mali, an active Left argues against the presence of foreign troops, trade unions fight against poverty and for higher wages, and civil rights movements fight for balance between ethnic groups. These are the forces that can solve Mali’s problems, problems that will not be solved by international military forces.

The German government is not creating stability in Mali. It is involved in a war and is thus destroying grassroots forms of resistance. Only one solution remains. The Bundeswehr must be withdrawn from Mali so that what happened in Afghanistan does not happen again.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.