> Mali could become France’s Afghanistan
> The hostage drama in an Algerian gas field is a brutal reminder of the > perils of western intervention. A French military operation in Mali, a > country whose difficulties were largely unknown to broader public opinion > until a few days ago, seems to have tipped the world back towards a > dangerous confrontation with radical Islam.
> The lessons are many but the first is that whereas 60,000 civilian deaths in > Syria’s civil war still leaves the international community divided and > hesitant to intervene militarily, the harsh Islamic rebel order that has > been imposed in northern Mali prompted no such hesitancy, although there has > been no comparable toll in lives. Even if this is the first much of the > world has heard about it, diplomats and defence officials in Paris, > Washington and at the UN in New York have been talking intervention for > months. Indeed, the French action has provided a substitute for a much more > leisurely Security Council -approved UN deployment of neighbouring African > peacekeeping troops. The rebels seemed to be about to advance on the Malian > capital, Bamako: Mali’s beleaguered Government and the French felt an > immediate intervention had become necessary.
> So the first lesson is a rueful reminder for many of us that national > security interests still trump humanitarian need when it comes to > intervention. While the world dithers, and the Russians veto when it comes > to the complex horrors of current Syria, the Security Council approval and > international community support quickly falls into place when an > al-Qaeda-linked movement threatens the stability of states. >
> Thereafter though, the parallels for Mali are Afghanistan not Syria. The > French operation risks following the same trajectory of early honeymoon and > apparent success followed by a long, bitter and losing engagement with no > clear exit strategy.
> The French with their own bitter experience in neighbouring Algeria’s > colonial war are well aware of the risks. President François Hollande’s > campaign commitments to avoid African entanglements means he will not have > entered into this adventure lightly whatever the temporary fillip to his > poll numbers. Beyond rightly feeling circumstances left them no choice, he > and his advisers have pulled off the first phase of the operation with a > very French aplomb that we British or Americans can only marvel at. Planners > in Washington had been contemplating drone attacks which would be a much > more problematic response than this combination of air power and ground > troops. It may be lower tech (one of two British loaned C17 transport planes > apparently quickly broke down) but it’s better politics.
> France’s network of contacts in Francophone West Africa remains unrivaled > and therefore Hollande’s team has been able to accelerate the deployment of > ground troops from neighbours as anxious as the West to contain an expansion > of revolutionary Islam. In doing so France will keep the region’s > governments if not all of its People on side.
> While the hostage crisis and the vulnerability of the growing number of > foreign-operated oil and gas facilities across Africa seems likely to bring > early rain on the French parade, the real dangers lie ahead. First, that the > loosely networked al-Qaeda brand will avoid pitched battles with the French > and melt back into the desert, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, regroup > and begin an insurgency against a logistically stretched occupier mounting > attacks not just in Mali but back home in France through Islamic > sympathisers. Second, the suddenness of the intervention risks aborting a > political process to encourage the regime in Bamako to broaden its > legitimacy and authority so that it can offer credible national leadership. > Coups and political confusion have created the weak local partner that has > dogged interventions of this kind from Vietnam to Afghanistan. >
> Without a credible government to hand back control to there could be no easy > exit for France and its allies from a military occupation that may over time > seed its own backlash as liberators become occupiers. There is a further > critical point. The troubles began with a mildly Islamic Tuareg ethnic > secessionist movement in northern Mali that has been hijacked by jihadists. > The former need to be got back on side. This will require deep local > knowledge of politics and culture which the French no doubt have but which > tends in these crises to be pushed aside in a military driven operational > planning process.
> The French have given refreshingly firm leadership to a needed intervention > but as the stand-off around the Algerian gas field shows it is already > starting to get harder. The need to find a political solution to Mali’s > divisions is even more important now than it was before French boots hit its > desert ground.