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“The Afghan failure is a lesson for the Sahel”

“The president must be persuaded that no armed force can solve the myriad problems that are at the root of African insurgencies.” AURELIE BAZZARA-KIBANGULA / AFP

MAINTENANCE – The specialist in development and aid to poor countries points out the similarities of errors, essentially political, between the two files. The armed force must be accompanied by coordinated development aid and the strengthening of sovereign institutions, he asserts.

Serge Michailof has worked in more than seventy countries on all continents and carried out around twenty missions in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2015. Former Director of Operations at the World Bank in Washington then at the French Development Agency (AFD) , he is now an associate researcher at Iris and a senior fellow at the Ferdi foundation. Noted author of Africanistan (October 2015, Fayard), he publishes Afghanistan: autopsy of a disaster 2001-2021. What lessons for the Sahel (April 2022, Gallimard).


LE FIGARO. – One year after the departure of Western troops, where is the situation in Afghanistan?

Serge MICHAILOF. – The Taliban regime in power seems as extremist as the one that was ousted in 2001, as the recent ban on access to middle and high school for young girls proved. The Taliban have tried to reconstitute the ministries but most of the cadres have left and the existing institutions suffer from their very weak historical capacity. Since 2001, the population has almost doubled and the country has become urbanized, even modernized. However, international aid has disappeared and Central Bank reserves have been frozen as a dramatic drought hits the country and causes famine. Finally, the Islamic State continues its campaign of terror…

According to you, the failure of Western interventionism in Afghanistan should be a lesson for the Sahel. Can we really compare these two regions?

Although they are very different societies, these regions have points in common. In Africa, an exponential demography every 22-25 years and remain very fragmented: in addition to the ten main ethnic groups that Mali and Afghanistan have, there are many sub-groups. These are also countries that live from poor agriculture, suffering from irregular and often insufficient rains. Anxious to feed their families, the young men are doomed to exile. So they often enlist in armed groups promoting a radical Islamism that has hit both regions. Last characteristic, the importance of illicit activities such as the production and trafficking of opium in Afghanistan and the multiple trans-Saharan trafficking for the Sahel involving Latin American cocaine, Moroccan hashish, cigarettes and now migrants!

It should be noted, however, that the foreign forces which intervened in the two regions against armed groups practicing guerrilla warfare did not have the same magnitude. The French Operation in the Sahel, with 5,000 French soldiers and around fifteen thousand belonging to the United Nations force, the Takuba force etc., turns out to be very small compared to the NATO intervention in Afghanistan which culminated in 2010/2012 with 150,000 soldiers, tens of thousands of contractors and benefited from all the American power.

Development aid takes time to ramp up: some in the Sahel, for example, have been multiplied by 8 or 9 between 2012 and 2020, which would be magnificent if eight or eighteen years after the start of the conflict, aid was not not largely paralyzed.

Serge Michailof

So what are the similarities of errors on the two folders?

These are numerous and essentially political: decision not seriously considered for the passage of Operation Serval to Barkhane for France, unjustified and totally unconsidered decision to intervene in Afghanistan for the United States; focus on the direct engagement of foreign forces instead of rebuilding local armies as a priority; drift from war aims to a hazy objective of “fighting terrorism”; no time limit or exit strategy for external intervention; support in both cases for highly corrupt governments; weak attempts to reform security institutions; abandonment of the justice reform carried out quickly by the insurgents; refusal to negotiate; lack of interest in aid for the reconstruction of sovereign institutions, etc.

You criticize the way in which development aid is granted. What to do ?

Development aid comes too late, once the security situation has seriously deteriorated. Development aid takes time to ramp up: some in the Sahel, for example, have been multiplied by 8 or 9 between 2012 and 2020, which would be magnificent if eight or eighteen years after the start of the conflict, aid was not not largely paralyzed.

The other main criticism is the absence of serious coordination between donors which leads to a mess. Certain sectors, certain regions are thus forgotten. The bulk of external aid should be grouped together in a trust fund managed in a coherent manner by a committee made up of the main donors and ministers. Too bad if this formula no longer allows everyone to place a flag on “his” achievements…

How to circumvent the problem of corruption?

Computerization can reduce the fantastic corruption linked for example to imports. But, it is true, the fight is hopeless as the imagination of the beneficiaries is vast and the real political will absent. In Mali as in Afghanistan, corruption is the work of criminal networks whose leaders generally sit in government. This corruption is at the origin of the disaffection of the populations vis-à-vis the regimes in place which are supported from abroad.

The Head of State is fortunate to have, with the French Development Agency (AFD), a powerful tool but which must seek to compensate for the weakness of its grant resources by mobilizing money from the World Bank. and the European Union.

Serge Michailof

To get out of it in Mali and more generally in the Sahel, what advice can you give to the President of the Republic?

The president must be persuaded that no amount of armed force can solve the myriad problems that are at the root of African insurgencies: demographic problems, overpopulation and rural misery, conflicts between farmers and herders, between dominant and dominated groups, the collapse of the rural primary education, disappearance of traditional justice – absence of modern rural justice and finally the presence of a conquering radical Islam.

The Head of State is fortunate to have, with the French Development Agency (AFD), a powerful tool but which must seek to compensate for the weakness of its grant resources by mobilizing money from the World Bank. and the European Union. It must ensure that this aid is redirected to the periphery of the G5 Sahel countries, in particular Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, as well as to the strengthening of African sovereign institutions. It must also support, rather than ostracize, the juntas which recently took power in Guinea and Burkina, launch a radio program denouncing the disinformation campaigns launched by Russia throughout Africa and, finally, ensure that military interventions remain discreet and focus on the reform of the security services.

Serge Michailof, Afghanistan: autopsy of a disasterApril 2022, Gallimard, 208 pages Gallimard

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