Deja vu: The French Intervention in Mali

Children playing football in Mali (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

On January 11, 2013, French President François Hollande sent a military expedition to rescue Dioncounda Traoré’s government from the “imminent terrorist threat”. Camille Maubert, a security analyst, explores this turn of events. 

By Camille Maubert, 16th January, 2013

Five days after the French “surprise” intervention in Mali, it is – to say the least – not clear what operation Serval is all about. Brandishing UN Article 51 (which proclaims the individual and collective right to protect a member subjected to armed aggression), French President François Hollande sent a military expedition to rescue Dioncounda Traoré’s government from the “imminent terrorist threat”.  750 ground troops, 30 tanks and several Rafale combat planes have thus been mobilised to strike Islamist strongholds in the North and West of Malian territory, making, according to “security sources”, important damage to the groups’ bases and leadership.

However, doubts are rising as to what the ins and outs of the intervention are in a context where reliable information is scarce. Indeed, most of the information publically available relies on two sources. On the one hand there are the official communiqués published by the various actors’ communication outlets which are often politically biased, and which are therefore unreliable and/or contradictory. For instance, while French defence spokesperson announces 60 terrorist casualties, the Malian army increases their number to “hundreds” and Islamic groups refuse to make any statements. On the other hand, the local press predominantly relies on witness accounts from the population and “local officials”. The weakness of such sources is patent, as they are based on what people saw, or think they saw, and therefore produces subjective and incomplete interpretations.

Keeping these limitations in mind, here are a few facts and thoughts that may shade some light on this disconcerting chain of events.

A recent national survey (Ifop) revealed that 63% of French citizens from all political backgrounds support the French armed intervention in Mali. Such “unanimous” rallying of the political intelligentsia at the bugle call is a worrying sign that Hollande’s decision to engage in the conflict was taken hastily, without real political debate. Ex-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who proclaimed France’s opposition to the Iraq War, deplored the “unison of warmongers”, asking how, from Afghanistan to Libya and Mali, France became “infected by the neoconservative virus” and came to take the lead in hazardous interventionist policies. Far-left representative Jean-Luc Mélanchon also expressed concerns about the legitimacy of the operation, condemning Hollande’s disregard of Parliament in his decision-making process. Others denounce the intervention as a reinstatement of the infamous “Françafrique”, which favoured the Metropole’s role as gendarme in its ex-colonies.

Yet, in his first Presidential speech in Africa, Hollande claimed his presidential term would break away from such noxious relationships and prioritise African sovereignty and political independence. On this ground, he declared as early as last October that no French troops would be involved in the Malian crisis, preferring an African solution to an African problem, dialogue to conflict. Hollande also announced a total pull-out from Afghanistan and strict reduction of France’s military budget for the years to come, in an attempt to fill the country’s debt gap. Why then, would he engage in a costly military intervention (assumed to cost 400 000€ per day)?

The justification invoked by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault for France’s intervention is the support of his Malian ally, the commitment to the fight against terrorism, and the implementation of 22 December UNSC resolution 2085 which supports the creation of an international assistance force (MISMA). In some déjà-vu scenario, UN recommendations – specifically emphasising the importance of political negotiation among African counterparts – were however ignored in favour of unilateral military intervention by a Western army claiming to interfere “for a few weeks” to restore order and re-install a democratic government.

But this time, François Hollande appears to have committed to eradicate terrorism in Mali on his own. Despite an apparent consensus on the necessity to contain and defeat an Islamist entrenchment in Mali, the international community seems to position itself very cautiously vis-à-vis a crisis which ins and outs are not clear yet. Indeed, although ECOWAS countries pledged to send ground troops (Nigeria mobilised 600 men, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Togo 500 men each, and Benin 300) in the near future, it may take several months for them to prepare and take over control of the operations. In addition, Western states like the US, UK, Belgium and Germany only committed to provide the Malian army with medical and transport aid but no military assistance.

Moreover, France has no solid partner in Mali. The Malian army is still divided by the power struggles that toppled President Amadou Oumani Touré last January, numerous soldiers deserted, and the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) maintains its claims to the Northern half of Malian territory, restricting anti-terrorist operations in the area. On the contrary, the French intervention may possibly reinforce the Islamist groups which, until now, were divided along ideological allegiances and political agendas. French troops might provide them with a common enemy to fight and any civilian casualty they cause will be used to mobilise the population on their side.

As a result, French troops may well have embarked in a long and difficult campaign in Northern Mali. After almost a week, Operation Serval shows no sign of any serious strategic vision. As mentioned above, it is extremely difficult to obtain intelligence about events in this area and, although air raids on Islamist strongholds do restrain the groups’ room of manoeuver, one should not forget that militants are experimented and well equipped fighters with a good knowledge of the terrain – a desert territory larger than France.

France thus became the major actor in a crisis which complexities might well reach beyond expectations.

Firstly, the identity, structure, capabilities and support base of the groups it is confronted to are particularly uncertain, as are the intra and inter-group relationships and agendas. The absence of clear understanding of who the so-called terrorists are and how their activities fits in the wider regional dynamics is a major weakness of the French plan of action and may lead to unexpected setbacks in the future.

Secondly, the abovementioned amalgamation of the diverse Malian actors under the single label “terrorists” wrongly conveys the simplified idea that French troops are up against one unified enemy. Quite the opposite; they are moving into a multifaceted society where allegiances are shifting and prominently based on (cross-border) tribal structures.

Lastly, and most importantly, by taking such strong stance in Mali, France may further jeopardise its interests in the West African region. Paradoxically indeed, by intervening directly against Islamist militants, it increased its perception as an “enemy of Islam” and thus became more vulnerable to attacks. The menace against French nationals is particularly  significant in Mali itself where 6000 residents remains, but also in the wider region where Al Qaeda detains 8 hostages to date and threatened to retaliate if the operation were to go on.

Camille Maubert is an international security researcher based in London. Her work focuses on security, intelligence and counter-insurgency, with a specific interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She has completed a Masters degree in International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS, London, and is currently pursuing a Masters degree at King’s College War Studies Department.


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