La Croix: The French authorities refuse to use the term failure of Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, on the grounds that the soldiers pushed back the terrorist groups and won all the battles on the ground. But in the end, they had to leave Mali, Burkina Faso and now Niger, and the jihadist movements seem stronger than ever…
Michel Yakovleff: You can win every battle and ultimately lose a war. This is the case of the Americans in Vietnam. They dominated at the tactical level and lost at the strategic level. The Vietnamese considered that the operational theater that mattered was that of American opinion in the United States and they were right: the Americans turned against the war led by their country after the victory of their soldiers during the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968.
Closer to us, the Western camp won all the battles in Afghanistan for twenty years, and yet the Taliban are today the masters of the country. We often think of victory or defeat as a key moment on the battlefield, the German breakthrough at Sedan in 1940 for example. But it is when we revisit a conflict that we can retrospectively say that success took shape at this or that moment.
But what constitutes a victory?
M. Y. : It is the imposition of one’s will on the enemy. The adversary submits: he is forced to accept the terms and conditions of the winner, even if he can negotiate at the margins. The result is a new political, diplomatic and military balance. At the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871, France accepted the cession of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany.
Another way of looking at things is the achievement of its objectives: for the Allies, ridding Europe of the Nazis, for example.
For France to be able to dispute today, without laughing, that Operation Barkhane is a failure, it would have to specify what its goals were. However, they have never been clearly stated. The fight against terrorism? It is not a goal in itself, but a process. Talking about “eradication of terrorism”, yes, would have been a clear objective.
So I think that the government is struggling to present Barkhane as a victory due to the absence of declared objectives. Is it a failure though? I think so, yes. We are withdrawing from certain African countries in conditions that are not ours. However, submitting to the terms of the other is a definition of defeat. Let us also point out that the departure of the French is not a success for the Malian government, which controls its territory less and less.
To achieve victory, you need a strategy. Isn’t this what France lacked?
M. Y. : Yes. Clearly, the first operation, Serval, was a great success which should have allowed the Bamako government to negotiate a good agreement with the rebel movements in the North, which it ultimately refused to do. If the strategy was to allow local authorities to take control of their destiny, it failed. From then on, victory became impossible.
But we have never obtained a definition of France’s clear objectives. When you are in the absence of clarity, you pay for it. Strategy without tactics is the longest path to victory, an Afghan told me. And tactics without strategy are the shortest path to defeat. But the history of French interventions in Africa encourages us to be cautious. If in ten years France were again called upon for aid in the Sahel, we would see the failure of Barkhane in a different light. We would then talk about a break. But today this is of course speculation.
I add that if the French withdrawal is a tactical, technical and logistical success, then this success will somewhat temper the general feeling of failure. Retirement in good order is often a condition for later success.
Can we change strategy along the way without suffering a defeat?
M. Y. : Yes, this is also a historical norm. This is what I call lens shift. Generally, both camps start with maximalist goals and gradually adapt. We saw the case in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin wanted to take over all of Ukraine, and as such he lost. But it can also boast of the conquest of new territories and declare that from now on its objectives are to preserve them.
There are two mechanisms for ending a conflict. The first is the absolute victory of one side over the other, like the Second World War, the Civil War… And the second is what the Americans call the mutually unacceptable stalemate: the two sides, incapable of gaining the upper hand one on the other, decide that a ceasefire is preferable to continued fighting. The Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s or the frozen conflict in Cyprus are examples. In this kind of situation, all sides of course say that they are winners.
Does this mean that a victory can be relative?
M. Y. : Absolutely, and we can judge it differently thirty years later. Take World War I. Everyone agrees today that it was a break before the Second World War. A victory which brings the seeds of a future war is perceived as such, until the resumption of hostilities. This is why the Ukrainians do not want to accept a ceasefire followed by a partition of their territory. They believe this would only delay the next conflict with Russia.