Communication Trend October: Mali - a Conflict in the Shadows

Two questions – and hardly any answers. As a reminder, Afghanistan and Mali represent the Bundeswehr's largest foreign missions to this day - and as far as Afghanistan is concerned, the one with the highest number of casualties. However, they play no role in the public consciousness. Afghanistan is a thing of the past; a timid attempt by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is still the defense minister, to initiate a review of the almost 20-year presence in the Hindu Kush. It took place at the beginning of October - not least because of the unfortunate timing shortly after the Bundestag elections - virtually out of the public eye. The German commitment south of the Sahara with up to 1600 soldiers is currently the largest deployment of the Bundeswehr abroad.  Any reverberations in the media? Not at all.


Three events this year have briefly raised the situation in Mali and the role of the Bundeswehr there above the very low attention threshold. On May 24, the military staged a coup against the transitional government of N'Daw/Ouane, which had been installed only nine months earlier following a military coup. German media depicted it as a "coup within a coup." On June 25, there was a suicide attack on a Bundeswehr patrol in which twelve German soldiers were wounded, three of them seriously. On September 15, various media report that the regime in Mali wants to hire 1,000 men from the Russian mercenary force, the "Wagner Group." The governments of Germany and France, which is particularly active in the Sahel, react indignantly and threaten to withdraw their contingents. (At the end of October, the Malian military government denies that there were negotiations with the “Wagner Group”).


All three incidents receive attention in the German media, but only for a few days each. The reporting and commentary remain essentially a field for the so-called “mainstream” media, and are comparatively meager in light of the media's continued preoccupation with the Corona pandemic and the election campaign of the Bundestag.


The description of the events after the second coup naturally focuses on the role of the Malian military, whose striving for power is cited as the main cause for the precarious conditions in the country. More space is given to France's reaction, which is obvious given that France is the main player among the extra-African powers engaged in the Sahel, and that President Emmanuel Macron announced that he would end the French anti-terrorist operation Barkhane in the Sahel in June. The fact that Russia is pursuing its own interests in Mali, as is now evident from the reports on the "Wagner Group". It remains hidden from the German public. Only the Deutsche Welle mentions this in two articles, which go unheeded. 


The "coup within a coup" briefly brings a new aspect to the center of the debate: the fact that the leading Malian military officers - like many senior officers from other countries - were trained at Bundeswehr institutions. Thomas Schiller, head of the Bamako office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, is quoted saying that there is an officer corps in Mali that, on paper, has attended the most prestigious international army schools, and yet is neither able to lead the army properly nor accept republican and democratic structures. And "Die Welt" publishes a large article under the headline "The putschist trainers". Most of the media, however, are quick to settle for the fixed statement by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer, which is that the coup will have no impact on the Bundeswehr mission "for the time being." The admonitions of a few experts not to underestimate the significance of the events are being thrown to the wind by Berlin politicians, as are the media. 

After the debacle of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, public opinion is calling for a clearer definition of the goals of German and Western involvement in Mali. In particular, the previous focus on the military aspect is being called into question. Many people in Mali now perceive the foreign soldiers more as occupiers, reports say. This also plays into the hands of religious leaders and terrorists, they say. "Firefighters put out fires, but the house remains a ruin for now," writes the Süddeutsche Zeitung. On the other hand, Carlo Masala, professor of International Politics at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, warns against a similar course as in Afghanistan. It is necessary "to realize that an Afghanistan 2.0, which we are trying to achieve in Mali, will not lead to success there either. The political goal of comprehensive stabilization including state reforms is exaggerated and fails to take into account the situation on the ground," Masala is quoted as saying in Die Welt.

Conclusion: In the summer of 2021, the "question of sense" will be asked more intensively about the Bundeswehr mission in Mali for the first time. It will be questioned how military training of the national military by the Bundeswehr can be justified if the military subsequently coups and installs a non-democratic government. And the danger of the mission, now more clearly perceived than before as a result of the attack on German soldiers, is giving new impetus to the debate about the extent to which state instability and cross-border terrorism can be effectively countered by military means. In view of the many critical voices of the military in the SPD and the Greens, it is doubtful whether a new red-green-yellow federal government will give the Bundeswehr's foreign missions the attention they deserve. 

Even if keeps dutifully tweeting nice little films from the military base “Camp Castor” or the EU training center Koulikoro almost every day, this does not change the fact that Mali is at least a communication disaster for the previous federal governments. As a result, Mali is likely to remain a conflict in the shadows for the German public - and a niche topic for a few security policy experts and for a few media outlets who are still willing and able to afford a look over the German garden fence.