For the third time in a decade the French military has ended up entangled in Northern Africa. When compared to previous missions to Cote d’Ivoire and Libya the intervention in Mali is has significant differences. For starters there is no UN or African Union presence (yet) and French boots were firmly on the ground a number of days before the UN Security Council unanimously backed the intervention on Monday. The Mali mission also has the potential to turn uglier far quicker than the bombing of a crippled Libyan regime or UN led peacekeeping mission in Cote d’Ivoire. The French press has already mooted, less than a week since the first shots were fired (and first French casualty taken) that Mali could become a Gallic Afghanistan. “We know how interventions start off, we never know how they end” says Le Monde. The French are heading into a very real war against militants that they helped bomb out of Libya not so long ago. The threat of an insurgency developing is very real and if this occurs the fear of the French media may prove well founded
The French can at least claim to be better at starting interventions that we (the British) are. They have gone to Mali at the government’s invitation and, if the BBC is to believed, been welcomed in the streets of the government controlled south by cheering crowds. This may change as the French tanks currently rolling into the north start hurling shells across the desert but for now at least the population is ‘on side’. Should this follow the pattern of France’s most recent venture back into an ex-colony then Francois Hollande will perhaps have got away with breaking his election promise of no more overseas intervention. On a political level alone success is vital for Hollande, who’s decision to intervene breaks the socialist mold somewhat. The head of an unpopular government during a time of austerity Hollande faces a similar situation to that of Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War. Military failure would be a huge, potentially crippling political blow while success might be the tonic the French Socialist Party needs. Indeed it has already been suggested that the audacity of the French President’s actions, both in Mali and the failed hostage rescue in Somalian, have helped him break free from a turgid start to his time in office.
It is also vital, just like in Cote d’Ivoire, that the African troops promised by Mali’s neighbours arrive soon and play a major role in keeping the peace. The longer French forces stay as the visible face of the war the more likely it is an occupation mentality will develop. Who can forget the change that took place over a few years is Basra and Baghdad, or indeed Kabul, when Coalition troops failed to leave. Nigerian troops have begun to arrive as this article is being written but more need nations need to follow suit. In an ideal world the blue flag of the United Nations will soon be flying over Mali in place of the red white and blue tricolor.
Of course the French need to get the job done before the blue helmets can take over and for that they might need more help than Mali’s neighbors can provide. Bernard Kouchner, the former French foreign minister told Channel 4 New on Wednesday night that is was imperative France was not ‘left alone’ by its European partners. Mr Kouchner pointed to the governments oscillating stance on Europe as a reason for Britain’s slow response. The sending of two transport planes to help deliver supplies is probably not what the French had in mind when they signed the 2010 Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty and while Kouchner’s suggestion of British troops being deployed might be far fetched the UK could, and arguably should, do more.
In these intervention situations, with a ‘western’ power fighting a largely Islamist movement the UK is at a greater risk whether it helps or not. The mindless hate rhetoric of Ansar Dine, the organisation through which AL-Qaeda rears its hydra like head in Mali, is likely to call for ‘death to Britain’ without considering how David Cameron’s EU conundrum might affect British policy. While ‘we’re going to be blamed anyway’ isn’t much of an excuse for going to war we shouldn’t need an excuse to help a country that, all cheese and monkey relate cliches aside, is arguably our closest ally after America. Boots on the ground isn’t plausible – due to equal part to logistics and public opinion – but that didn’t deter action when Libya was concerned. At the very least those C-17s should make a few more trips.
How the Mali conflict is managed may become a test case for intervention across northern Africa. Events since the Arab Spring have highlighted how interconnected the nations that straddle the Sahara are. The toppling of one regime can send a wave of disturbance, usually in the form of young men in pick up trucks, across the region. Just an Qaddafi’s foreign fighters have spread from Libya into Algeria and then Mali so too will they spread from Mali if intervention is botched. Whether through purely military means or by sitting down and talking to those who will talk it is imperative that the Malian problem stays in Mali. The list of African countries already touched by the AL-Quaeda brand is long enough as it is and the notion that Islamic extremism was a purely Arabian phenomenon has long ago become irrelevant. Over a decade since that ill fated term ‘War on Terror’ was first coined Mali provides a prime example of a situation where the international community, whether in the guise of the UN, the EU or a Franco-African coalition, must act. Not only is Mali’s future at stake but it is no overstatement to say that what happens in the next weeks and months will have long lasting consequences for the rest of northern Africa. We may simply have to wait and hope that the French get it right again.