The situation in Mali continues to worsen with the Malian military and its French allies suffering casualties in combat operations recently.

A Malian military unit was caught in an ambush by Islamic jihadists on Thursday night. The ambush occurred in the western part of the country near the Mauritania border, the Malian army said in a statement Friday. 

The Malian Army posted on Twitter that its mission in Guire suffered deaths, injuries, and material damage on Thursday’s ambush. “Reinforcements have been dispatched there,” it added.

It was the largest attack on the military since it removed President Keita and his government from office on August 18.

Additionally, two French soldiers were killed and another one wounded on Saturday in an operation near Tessalit in Mali’s northeastern Kidal region after their armored vehicle hit an improvised explosive device, the Élysée Palace announced.

The French troops were part of the ongoing “Operation Barkhane,” the French-led effort to rid the Sahel region of an Islamic insurgency. The soldiers were members of the Airborne regiment based in Tarbes, southwestern France.

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French President Emmanuel Macron said that France mourns for the soldiers’ sacrifice. He sent his “sincere condolences to their families and loved ones” while praising the “courage and determination of the French military deployed in the Sahel region.” He also took the opportunity to call on the leaders of the military group to speed up the transition to civilian rule.

The military’s coup against President Keita has been condemned internationally and regionally among Mali’s West African neighbors. There is concern that the coup could undermine the coalition’s military campaigns against Islamist militants in the region.

The ruling military group, called the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, is now running Mali under the leadership of Col. Assimi Goita.

Despite the removal of President Keita, France has said that it will continue its military support for its former colony in the fight against Islamist militants.

Background

In 2013, after the Taureg rebellion against the government was hijacked by Islamic jihadists that pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda, France began deploying troops in the country, after Mali requested help. The French initially deployed over 4,000 troops. Their numbers have now swelled to 5,100 as “Operation Barkhane” continues. 

Initially, the French military intervention stemmed the Islamist tide. But the jihadists have since regrouped, reorganized, and spread their insurgency to Niger, Mauritania, Chad, and Burkina Faso. These countries comprise the G5 Sahel. The Sahel is a semi-arid region just south of the Sahara.

Mali has long been plagued by political instability: This is the third coup in the past 20 years. 

A number of issues were the catalyst for the military taking over power from President Keita. These include the jihadist insurgency, ethnic violence with Fulani tribesmen being forced from traditional grazing lands due to climate change, and huge government corruption.

There have been reports that the military wants to set up a transitional administration that will hold power for three years in order to prepare for a return to civilian rule. The country’s longtime political opposition, the international community, and the West African regional bloc are demanding the junta speed up that transition.

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Military Control in Mali

Thus, on Saturday, Mali’s military junta began talks with opposition groups to discuss the transition to civilian control of the government.

Yet, if history is to be any judge, the ruling junta should not rush the transition. The last elections exemplify why: In the 2018 election, voter turnout was low due to perceived electoral fraud and the deepening Islamist insurgency; this led to the election of Keita’s ineffective government. Compounding the issue, the problems that Mali would face were it to hold elections now are more acute: Insurgent attacks are increasing; the government is struggling to control the outlying areas of its territory; and the coronavirus is prohibiting large gatherings of people. Therefore, trying to hold elections now, knowing that voter turnout will be negatively affected considerably, would cause more problems than it would solve.

Instead, the military needs to strengthen its ties with its neighbors and the worldwide community, even if it means that it will have to remain in power for a while. This will not be easy, since it is the exact opposite of what the worldwide community is calling for. 

Already, ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) has cut financial aid to Mali. Neighboring countries have also closed their borders in a bid to step up pressure on the coup leaders. Additionally, Mali is currently suspended from the African Union and from receiving U.S. military assistance.

Therefore, the composition of a transitional government will be critical in assuaging international concerns. The transitional government should involve the opposition and include its most vocal member, Salafi imam Mahmoud Dicko. He is a very captivating man and is considered to be one of the most influential people in Mali. He originally supported the now-deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in the 2013 election, but then began supporting the opposition in 2017. However, Dicko has frequently stated that he has no political ambitions. But his voice has resonated with a considerable segment of the population and he may be forced by events into serving a role in a transitional government.

Task Force Takuba

The stability of the country at the present, despite a huge French military intervention, is at a critical juncture. 

To help stabilize the region, the French have created “Takuba,” a task force of Special Operations units from throughout the E.U. The task force will train, advise, assist, and accompany units from the G5 Sahel in their fight against the insurgency. The governments of Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Mali, Niger, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have pledged support.

The task force began initial operations from the French base at Gao. It won’t be in its full complement of troops until early next year.

The French have suffered increasing casualties during the seven years that they’ve deployed to Mali. Since 2013, 45 French soldiers have died, according to the French government. 

Last November, 13 French soldiers were killed when two helicopters collided during a combat operation against jihadists near the border with Burkina Faso and Niger. It was the largest single loss of life for the French military in decades.