Stakes high for France in Mali

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  • Published 20.01.13

Paris, Jan. 19: This was not the war President François Hollande wanted.

In just two hours last Thursday, after a plea for help from Mali’s interim President, Dioncounda Traoré, Hollande decided to send in French warplanes and ground troops.

It was supposed to be a quick and dramatic blow that would send the Islamists scurrying back to their hide-outs in northern Mali, buying time for the deployment of an African force to stabilise the situation. Instead it is turning into what looks like a complex and drawn-out military and diplomatic operation that Hollande’s critics are already calling a desert version of a quagmire, like Vietnam or Afghanistan.

Some here speak of Hollande’s “Sahelistan”. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French President, reminded Hollande of “the danger of a military operation without a clear enemy, with the risk to civilians that is bound to engender hostility among the citizens.” He warned of “neocolonialism”.

Hollande, who has a reputation for indecisiveness, has certainly taken on a difficult task. The French are fighting to preserve the integrity of a country that is divided in half, of a state that is broken. They are fighting for the survival of an interim government with no democratic legitimacy that took power in the aftermath of a coup.

Like every French official on the topic, he asked a questioner to imagine the alternative — “another Somalia” on the western edge of Africa, lawless and dominated by Islamic radicals close to al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, who would set about instituting the harshness of Shariah law all over Mali, stoning adulterers and cutting off the hands of thieves, while engaging in the drug and arms smuggling, kidnapping and terrorism that funds their notion of jihad.

That prospect, the officials insist, is why the entire region, including Algeria, has supported the French intervention, which was also backed by the Security Council. The French initiative has also had public support.

It was not supposed to be this way, French officials and experts acknowledge. Sometime in the autumn, under UN Security Council Resolution 2085, African troops from the Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas, together with a retrained and reinspired Malian Army, were supposed to take back the north of the country.

Those African forces were to be trained with the help of the EU and guided in their mission by French forces in an advisory capacity, with the US helping to provide financing and airborne reconnaissance, intelligence, air transport and air-to-air refuelling.

France was supposed to have a largely civilian role, not itself engaged in fighting and with no troops on the ground. Ecowas and the Malians were supposed to fight their way into northern Mali and clear it of Islamists.

Just 10 days ago, before Hollande’s sudden action, a senior adviser at the Élysée described how slowly the Mali operation was going. He described the difficulties with Ecowas, with squabbles over financing, training and transporting Ecowas troops, and how hard it had been to get Washington, after the Libyan civil war, to pay attention to a deteriorating situation in Mali and the risks of Islamic terrorism spreading in the Sahel.

The Americans finally started listening to French concerns last September, he said, but had their doubts about how easy it would be to drive the Islamists out of the vastness of northern Mali. And Washington did not consider the Ecowas plan to be well conceived.