Why France is losing its 'Great Game' in western Africa
The British used to call it "the Great Game" — the military and political jockeying of great powers in the late 19th century in Afghanistan, India and the areas around southern Russia. France, too, has played its "Great Game" in western Africa for 150 years. Now it's losing. Islamist extremists are winning.
And other big players, like Russia and above all China, are moving in.
French President Emmanuel Macron made a downbeat announcement on June 10.
"The role of France isn't to be a perpetual substitute for the states on the ground," he said.
Then he said France would in the coming months start pulling back some of the 5,100 French troops fighting Islamist extremists in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
"This is defeat, that's clear," Thierry Vircoulon, an expert on Africa at the French Institute for International Relations, said in an interview.
"The lesson for France is not to get into wars you can't win."
Another losing fight
Vircoulon linked Macron's decision directly to another losing fight in the modern Great Game.
"The French move must be seen in the light of the American decision in Afghanistan. If the Americans hadn't started talks with the Taliban and then announced their pullout, the French government might not have taken the decision it did."
The French began their desert guerrilla war in 2013 to dislodge Islamist extremists who had taken Timbuktu in the centre of Mali. That offensive was a success but, since then, the guerrilla war has continued, the jihadis have grown in number and the number of civilians killed, most by marauding extremists, has multiplied.
There were more than 6,000 civilian deaths in 2020, an increase of 30 per cent on the previous year, according to ACLED (Armed Conflict Location and Event Data). The French have seen 55 soldiers killed, the armies of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have lost thousands more in eight years.
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