Photo by Constant Loubier on Unsplash.
More than forty years separate the first French intervention in Chad from Opération Serval launched by France in northern Mali in 2013. Yet, the two military operations are similar enough to wonder if France could perhaps learn from its past experience in the region.
The origins of the interventions are nearly identical. In both cases, African heads of state entrusted the fight against an insurgency to a foreign army. In 1969, President Tombalbaye called the French when he realized that the rebels of the National Liberation Front of Chad (FROLINAT) were threatening the capital, citing treaties the two countries had signed in 1960. In January 2013, the Malian interim government requested military assistance from France as Islamist fighters took the city of Konna, less than 400 miles northeast of Bamako.
The French intervention in Chad and Mali had roughly the same objective of militarily quashing a rebellion and both have been quite successful. The French defeated FROLINAT rebels after a series of bloody battles between 1969 and 1972 in Chad. In Mali, they regained control of much of the north of the country with the help of Chadian troops after a quick but intensive military campaign in 2013.
While successful, both campaigns were not followed by development initiatives that could have provided long-lasting solutions to the conflict. In 1972, General Edouard Cortadellas, commander of the Franco-Chadian forces, told Agence France Presse that “the military intervention has fulfilled its contract in Chad and the current problem is no longer military but administrative, economic and social”. French forces were in a similar situation in Mali after Opération Barkhane replaced Opération Serval in July 2014: while they were successful in killing violent insurgents or expelling them to Libya and Algeria, they were also unable to address civilian development challenges.
Both the first French intervention in Chad and later operations in the Sahel were justified by a local variant of the domino theory, according to which the fall of one country would cause similar events in its neighbors. In the late 1960s, French leaders argued that if they did not intervene in Chad to save the government of President Tombalbaye, France would lose credibility among the newly independent countries of the region.
The political elites of Mali and other Sahelian countries have used the same approach since the mid-2010s, arguing repeatedly that if they did not receive additional assistance from Western donors, they would fall one after the other to Jihadist insurgencies. Two conferences were organized at the end of 2017 in Paris to mobilize billions of dollars from the international community in favor of Chad and Niger and avoid that prospect.
In both Chad yesterday and Mali today, political elites were unable or unwilling to address the roots of the conflict. In the early 1970s, President Tombalbaye failed to realize that at least part of the rebellion was motivated by an unequal distribution of resources and power between the south and the north of the country. Similarly, in Mali, the development of extremist organizations in the Inner Niger Delta, Dogon Country and Gourma feeds on social, economic and governance issues that the central government have never addressed seriously.
In both countries, government forces were unable to restore order on a long-term basis and have sovereignty over the entire territory. In Chad, both the government and the FROLINAT rebels were too weak to strike against each other, until Colonel Muhammar Qaddafi occupied the Aouzou strip and allied with local rebels against the central government. President Tombalbaye was eventually killed in 1975, three years before the French militarily intervened for the second time. Chad then experienced 30 years of civil wars, coups d’état and political violence which have left the country on the brink of collapse.
A similar scenario is not unlikely in Mali, where neither the rebels, nor the violent extremist organizations or the central government are strong enough to seriously threaten each other and lead to a comprehensive peace agreement. These conditions have left much of the civilian population unprotected and contributed to spread insecurity in neighboring countries.
If there is one lesson that France could have learned from its first intervention in Chad in the late 1960s, it is that external forces cannot be the main forces of success in an insurgency. Insurgencies emerge because of grievances, real or perceived, that must be addressed through military and civil means by the political elites of the countries in which they develop. External forces can only reduce conflicts to a manageable problem that local states can address themselves.