It’s been over two weeks since France launched its intervention in Mali, which I’ve been following closely and have been intending to write about, but haven’t gotten around to until now. And as all sorts of people more knowledgeable than I have been on the story and weighing in with analyses and commentary, I was wondering if I had anything original to add. But then, numerous persons not more knowledgeable than I (of which more below) have also been tossing out their opinions and on high-profile websites, so if they can, pourquoi pas moi? And a few faithful readers have indeed asked what I think of the French action—and about the situation in Mali more generally (on which I posted three times last year)—, so voilà, here’s my two cents.
- First, François Hollande did the right thing in sending French troops to Mali en catastrophe, with the sudden, unanticipated Ansar Eddine/AQIM/MUJWA offensive across the demarcation line, seizure of Konna, and the manifest goal of the Islamist fanatics to seize the airport at Sevaré and then advance on Mopti just down the road. This would have been a disaster and could not be allowed to happen, so Hollande had no choice but to act illico. The narco-jihadists had to be stopped and quickly. If they had taken Mopti—Mali’s second city—it would have been a cakewalk to Bamako in view of the worse than pitiful state of the Malian army. Now it is possible that Ansar Eddine & Co would not have advanced on Bamako, as argued by Andrew McGregor of The Jamestown Foundation: fighting in southern Mali and trying to occupy Bamako and its hostile population would have been too tall an order for the Tuaregs and their non-Malian allies, and of which they were no doubt well aware. Perhaps. But this couldn’t be left to chance, and certainly not with the thousands of French and other European expatriates in the capital. The French would have had absolutely no choice but to intervene had an assault on Bamako come to pass but the costs would have been infinitely greater than they are now.
- A narco-jihadist takeover of Bamako—and thus the entire country—and the consequent collapse of the Malian state would have been a catastrophe of the first order. First, the humanitarian consequences, of the huge numbers of civilians killed and the even huger number of refugees fleeing to neighboring states, some of these only recently exiting from major instability or civil wars of their own (Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone). And, as is too well-known, the presence of large numbers of war refugees in an African state can only engender instability and very big problems—humanitarian, political—in that state. Secondly, once ensconced in Bamako—and after the inevitable bloodbath and destruction—there would be no getting Ansar Eddine and its Al-Qaida allies out of there. Bamako would become a Kabul circa 1998 (or perhaps 1992-96, when rival groups fought each other and destroyed the city in the process). Thirdly, it wouldn’t end there. A Mali turned into an Afghanistan circa 1996-2001—and with Al-Qaida in the saddle—would be a grave threat to its neighbors—most with weak states and armies no stronger than Mali’s—, particularly Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, and, above all, Senegal. A domino effect is not to be excluded here, particularly in view of the increasing influence of Wahhabi-style Islam across west Africa, including in Senegal. But the threat would also extend to Europe and the US. If Senegal and Mauritania were to succumb in turn, Al-Qaida Islamists in league with Latin American drug cartels would be in control of the Atlantic coast of west Africa. The security threat to the West here is, I think, rather obvious. So, IMHO, the French decision to intervene was a no-brainer.
- It is being said that everyone supports France’s Mali intervention—and which is backed up by UNSC resolutions and all that—but that the French are also on their own. Both are true. The EU, US, ECOWAS, African Union, and Arab states (most of them) are all supportive of the French, and the Russians and Chinese haven’t said a thing against (and why would they? as they hardly have an interest in Al-Qaida gaining a durable foothold in an African state). But France’s European Union allies are making it clear that their support of France will be moral and modest at most. And absolutely no boots on the ground. The Brits, burned by Iraq and Afghanistan, will offer light logistical support at most; the Germans, typically prudent, are giving the thumbs up but little more; Italy, forget it; and the Spaniards, terrified of terrorist attentats, even restricted French air force overfly rights on their territory over a four-day period, authorizing them on a case-by-case basis so reported Le Monde the other day. This is crazy, if not downright scandalous. To paraphrase a well-known Parisian islamologue pundit, France’s solitude in a conflict whose stakes concern all of Europe, and particularly its southern rim, voids the European Union of its very essence and meaning. Indeed.
- As for the US, the Obama administration is supportive of the French and has offered logistical support—transporting soldiers and equipment in C17s, offering satellite intelligence, and now refueling tankers—but has been holding back (until today at least). So the Americans don’t want another Afghanistan. And, as it happened, the American engagement with the Malian army over the past four years, as the NYT reported two weeks ago, was a complete fiasco. But west Africa is a lot closer to the US than is Afghanistan and, for the reasons mentioned above, there are real security interests at stake, not to mention economic as well, as a radical Islamist Mali would inevitably send shock waves into Nigeria and strengthen Boko Haram and other fanatical Salafists there. And immigration from west Africa into the US has become significant over the past three decades, with a lot of movement back and forth. So there is no avoiding increased American support of the French intervention. Troops are out of the question, of course, but increased logistical support may be needed (i.e. drones).
- The key regional actor, obviously, is Algeria. Algeria’s game in Mali over the past year—which the well-informed blogger Andy Morgan, writing last July, called “masterful”—is well known (of trying to split Ansar Eddine—Malian Tuareg Islamist fanatics, with whom one may presumably deal—from AQIM/MUJWA—transnational terrorist jihadist fanatics, with whom one may absolutely not deal). (BTW, see Andy Morgan’s other posts on Mali and the Sahel; they are very interesting). The Algerians decreed northern Mali to be their chasse gardée and told France and everyone else to either fall in line behind their diplomatic strategy or butt out. The Algerians were being a pain in the rear, as can be their wont, but were defending their interests (at least as the Algerian military defined them). But Algeria’s game blew up in its face with the Ansar Eddine/AQIM/MUJWA offensive of 2½ weeks ago. The alacrity with which the Algerians allowed the French air force overfly rights was striking. Given Algeria’s relationship with France—which may be mildly characterized as neurotic—and its psychosis over its sacrosanct sovereignty, this was amazing indeed. Lucid Algerian analysts have favored the move (overtly or implicitly)—e.g. journalists Omar Belhouchet, Akram Belkaïd, Kamel Daoud—but most Algerians are uncomfortable to shocked by the tacit alliance with France (though Algerian public opinion seems to have evolved somewhat since the hostage crisis at Tiguentourine). What is clear is that Algeria, however much it may have been part of the problem, is a necessary part of the solution. The Algerians are not going to openly send troops into northern Mali—and will certainly not be seen openly collaborating with the French—but unless Algeria wants to be “Pakistanized,” as Kamel Daoud put it, it will have to do all it can to seal its southern border and eradicate the jihadists down that way. So France, the US, and everyone will have to continue indulging the Algerian regime, and regardless of how it deals with hostage crises involving their citizens.
- Mali has shown that it hardly has a functioning state and an even less of a functioning army. However one evaluates the presidency of ATT over the past decade—I’ve read contradictory arguments by specialists, some arguing that it was positive (that ATT was a visionary and a democrat), others negative (that ATT’s elections were less than free and fair and that his rule was heavy-handed)—, there is no denying Mali’s deliquescence. My faith in the argument that democracy could take root in poor countries suffered a blow with what has happened in Mali. One thing is for sure, though, which is that Mali is not a nation, never has been, never will be. The Tuareg are akin to the Iraqi Kurds: they want independence and absolutely not to be in the country of which they are a part. But as an independent Azawad, like an independent Kurdistan, is not going to happen—they’re landlocked and every bordering state is hostile to the prospect—, the only solution is autonomy or a confederal arrangement. Hardly an original thought on my part. At least there’s a prospective Tuareg partner for this, the MNLA, and that can retake the initiative if/when Ansar Eddine is brought to heel.
- Critiques of the French intervention that excoriate French colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, the FrançAfrique blah blah are so stupid, asinine, idiotic, and utterly irrelevant that they do not merit a response. Some of these critiques have been penned by trendy leftist academics (e.g. here and here), others by nutty bloggers (e.g. here), who, until proof to the contrary, have no greater knowledge of or insight into Mali (or the history of French colonialism) than do I or any other halfway informed person. Other critiques of the same tenor issue from Arab (mainly Algerian) and African tiersmondiste intellos frozen in the 1970s and who operate in their own intellectual and political universe (for one prolific and representative case, see here). No point in responding to them. That thankless polemic may be assumed by their Arab/Algerian and/or African detractors (as, e.g. this Senegalese academic has done with that overrated bloviator Tariq Ramadan). (For those who haven’t been paying attention, the FrançAfrique and French neocolonialism are dead; a thing of the past; they’re over; finished).
- Numerous, marginally less stupid critiques of the French intervention have insisted on the link between the jihadist takeover of northern Mali and the NATO Libya intervention, of the perverse effects of the latter and its engendering of the former. I wish to know if these critics of the Libya intervention warned loudly of the impact a collapse of the Qadhafi regime would have on Mali while the intervention was underway, i.e. in 2011—and if any insist that they did, I invite them to furnish documentary proof of their prescient warnings. But even if one or two of these brilliant Cassandras can do this, so what? (for my view of the Libya intervention, see here). Not every perverse effect can be anticipated when undertaking an urgent course of action and, in any case, the eventual impact on the Malian Tuaregs was hardly a clinching argument against ridding Libya and the world of the psychotic Qadhafi regime once that opportunity presented itself.
- Yet other critiques have warned of France getting bogged down in an endless Afghanistan-like conflict and from which the lessons have not been learned, or so it is asserted (e.g. here). Retort: Mali is not Afghanistan (see below). The comparison is specious. And then there are critiques coming from within the French political class, e.g. the howler from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing evoking “neocolonialism”—the same Giscard who sent troops to Kolwezi and palled around with Emperor Bokassa—, or the neo-pacifist Dominique de Villepin warning against engrenages (quagmires) and wondering how France could have been infected with the “neoconservative virus” (whatever neoconservatism has to do with anything here), or of Jean-Luc Mélenchon deploring the fact that the parliament wasn’t consulted before the intervention (as if the French parliament is ever consulted on such matters, and particularly before they happen), or of UMP personalities (J-F Copé, L.Wauquiez etc) breaking with the union sacrée and criticizing Hollande because France is all alone in Mali and without its EU partners (these very same UMP personalities who uncritically supported every unilateral action of Sarkozy). Quite simply, any critique of the French intervention with a valid point or two but that is not policy relevant, that does not propose an alternative course of action, is worthless, in my book at least.
- What is remarkable about the intervention is how French soldiers are being welcomed by the Malian people as saviors (the scènes de liesse in Gao today offering the latest spectacle). Given how unpopular and unloved the French are in their former African colonies, this is something indeed (in this respect, I challenge anyone to visit francophone Africa and ask people how they feel about France; one will not find many positive responses). Not even leftist/tiersmondiste detractors of the French will deny that the Malian people are greatly pleased and relieved by the French intervention.
- It has almost gone without saying that the French are not only on their own in Mali—and that a Malian/ECOWAS fighting force to take over from them is illusory—but that the conflict against the heavily armed, well-trained, and highly motivated and fanaticized narco-jihadists will be a long one, and for which France lacks the men and resources. Maybe but I’m not convinced. As asserted above, Mali is not Afghanistan. Ansar Eddine is not the Taliban (not in numbers) and there is no Waziristan-like sanctuary. The narco-jihadist forces number in the thousands at most and though well-armed from Qadhafi’s arsenal, can only get around in pick-ups in the open desert, which is perfect terrain for air power and drones. The Tuaregs are not Pashtuns and northern Mali is not southern Afghanistan. And Ansar Eddine and its AQIM/MUJWA cohorts are not Qadhafi’s Libya and with its resources. They are also not fish in the water in the areas they have occupied. Au contraire, they rather manifestly appear to be hated by the population under their yoke. If Algeria, Niger, and Mauritania can effectively seal their borders, the narco-jihadists—bereft of gasoline to fuel their pick-ups and with reinforcements choked off—can well be asphyxiated. Some may retreat into the Adrar mountains. They can stay there (and where the Algerians could make discreet incursions to smoke them out). The French, despite limitations in manpower, will have the logistical support they need. And they have the Malian population behind them. If the MNLA can gain the upper hand among the Tuaregs—and with part of Ansar Eddine rallying to it—and make a deal with whoever is in power in Bamako—and brokered by the French—, the intervention could wind up successfully in a matter of months. Call me Pollyannaish but I think this is definitely in the realm of the possible.
Voilà my two cents. For others on the same page as mine, see David Rodhe’s defense of the French intervention in The Atlantic, Gregory Mann’s post in the Africa Is a Country blog—plus this one in The Guardian—, Jean-François Bayart’s in Le Monde, and this by François Heisbourg, also in Le Monde. This Timbuktu Who’s Who from last July is also useful. À suivre.