That was quite a reception François Hollande received in Bamako and Timbuktu yesterday. Looked like the entire population of the two cities turned out to greet him and as their savior (see here, here, and here). The Baghdad victory parade Bush and Cheney could only dream of. This was hardly a FrançAfrique intervention of bygone days, with the French sending a battalion of legionnaires to prop up a client dictator facing internal contestation. I certainly felt gratified by the scènes de liesse. The Mali intervention has so far gone off without a hitch. Moreover, who would have expected two weeks ago that not only would Timbuktu already be liberated from the yoke of the Ansar Eddine and AQIM psychos but that the French would be in control of Kidal’s airport? Pace my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer, who appears unimpressed, this is a huge success for Hollande and will no doubt modify his image among a certain number of his compatriots (à propos, note the pertinent comments by Massilian and Myos in the thread of Art’s post), not to mention outside France. I doubt we’ll be hearing too many references to “Flanby” henceforth, or cutting remarks on him being indecisive.
There has notably been no triumphalism on Hollande’s part nor any declarations of “mission accomplished.” Everyone knows the thing isn’t over and that the narco-jihadists—who withdrew from Timbuktu without firing a shot—are out in the desert somewhere, likely holed up in the mountain ranges along the Algerian border. Good. Let them stay there. At some point they’re going to have to come out for supplies, which will be rather more complicated for them than it was for the Taliban after 2001, as there is no Waziristan to fall back on. As I pointed out in my last post—and that political scientist Laura Seay reiterated the other day in FP—, northern Mali is not Pushtunistan and Ansar Eddine & Co are not the Taliban (not in number or hegemony over their areas of ethnic strength). It will take a while to eradicate them, or render them a non-threat to the areas from which they have been driven, but it is definitely an attainable objective, particularly if necessary political process between the government in Bamako and the MNLA yields results.
Hollande and defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian—with whom I have been impressed (I didn’t have an opinion on him before the intervention)—have been wise in not setting fixed objectives or timetables, and in saying that France will stay “for as long as it takes.” And while the rhetoric of African soldiers taking over the job is still there, it is pretty obvious that not only is this not going to happen but cannot happen. Soldiers from the ECOWAS states (Niger excepted) not only have no experience operating in the desert but would also only make the situation worse, as this analysis in Rue89 suggested. African armies are not only not efficient fighting forces but are given over to extreme violence (committing massacres, mistreatment of prisoners) and raping, looting, and pillaging. If soldiers from neighboring African states took over from the French, it would be a fiasco: they would likely get chewed up by the narco-jihadists and the civilian population of northern Mali would very possibly welcome the latter back as liberators. As for the Malian army, it would not be a good idea for it to enter the Tuareg lands (and one notes that the French did not bring the Malians with them to Kidal). So it’s a French job to the end (and with the Algerians discreetly doing their part).
Early critics of the Mali intervention have been laying low the past week. Algerians on social networks have been reacting with bad humor to Hollande’s victory parade yesterday, so reports Akram Belkaïd. In case anyone didn’t see it, the normally excellent Africanist Stephen Smith had an article on the Mali intervention, dated January 24th, in the LRB. Smith knows the region—not to mention French policy there—better than just about anyone but I was somewhat underwhelmed by the piece. It’s not one of his best. He pulls his punches and avoids taking a clear position one way or the other. I was pleased to note that he makes some of the same points I did in my post of a week ago, particularly on the FrançAfrique, but it is preposterous to suggest that Hollande’s action may have been linked to his domestic political standing and low poll ratings. Not even Hollande’s UMP adversaries have (yet) alleged this. But if Hollande does start to rise a little in the polls, ça ne va pas tarder.