French withdrawal paves way for talks between

As France prepares to withdraw its forces from Mali, the way may be open for talks between the Malian government and al-Qaeda-linked militants, a process that could bring the West African nation closer to peace.

Mali, a landlocked nation of 21 million people, has fought to curb a brutal uprising that erupted in 2012, before spreading to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and 2 million people displaced by the Sahel-wide conflict, in which Mali is still the epicenter.

Analysts have long argued that there is no military solution to the conflict and many support engaging militants in dialogue to break the cycle of violence.

However, after intervening in Mali in 2013 to fight the militants, France has long opposed dialogue.

“We are not discussing with terrorists. We are fighting,” French President Emmanuel Macron told the newspaper Jeune Afrique 2020.

On Thursday, Macron announced that he was withdrawing French troops from Mali due to a conflict with the country’s ruling military junta.

The opportunity for dialogue with militants has now reappeared.

Shortly after the announcement of the French withdrawal, the International Crisis Group said that “political dialogue should be considered with some (militant) leaders” in order to address the uncertainty.

Advocates of dialogue for the most part argue that the Daesh-affiliated group should be excluded.

Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of the al-Qaeda-linked GSIM group, has previously said he is open to talks with the Malian government – but only if French and UN troops leave the country.

The moment of opportunity

The prospect of dialogue with militants has long been a hallmark of Malia’s policies.

In 2020, ex-president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said he had sent envoys to two of Mali’s top militant leaders, including Iyad Ag Ghaly.

The move followed two nationwide consultations in 2017 and 2019 that recommended talks.

Keita was then ousted in a military coup in August 2020, after weeks of protests fueled in part by frustration over lack of progress against the fierce conflict.

But Mali’s new governing junta also seems to be open to conversation.

In October 2021, the army-installed Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga Mali likened the situation to Afghanistan, pointing out that Washington had engaged the Taliban in talks.

“Why not do the same thing here?” he asked.

Ornella Moderan from the think tank Institute for Security Studies said that the current moment represents an “opportunity”.

But she also warned that Mali is “much more belligerent” than before.

Mali’s junta has recently declared military victories against militants, after years of devastating attacks.

The announcements have coincided with what the United States, France and others say is the arrival of paramilitaries from the Russian private security company Wagner to Mali.

But Mali’s junta denies Wagner’s presence.

Existing contacts

How the talks with the armed groups can work, and when they can start, is still unclear.

Malian researcher Boubacar Haidara suggested that the Mali government would only want to enter into dialogue when it is in a strong negotiating position.

In December, the International Crisis Group said neither Mali’s government nor GSIM had decided how to conduct negotiations – or “what compromises they might be willing to accept.”

The challenges facing such talks are frightening, but the government in Bamako and the militants have long maintained informal contacts.

Malian authorities have used religious leaders as intermediaries to, for example, negotiate the release of the hostages. And in the volatile north, some government officials have collaborated with traditional Islamic judges linked to al-Qaeda.

A senior member of a militant group, who requested anonymity, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that dialogue was already present at the local level.

“But no one wants to support it politically or publicly,” he said.

The influential Imam Mahmoud Dicko – who has passed on government messages to militant groups – told a news conference this month that he was “ready to reactivate”.

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