With France’s ignominious track record for disastrous military adventures on the African continent - the 1956 Suez Crisis comes most to mind - one would think that the former colonial power would have learned some prudence by now.
But alas, no. The French charged into Mali last week with hundreds of troops, fighter jets and attack helicopters in a rash move that casts serious questions of legality and military viability. French state-of-the-art Rafale fighter jets have been bombing at least six towns across the north and central belt of the remote Sahel desert country for five consecutive days and counting. With hundreds more French troops on the way and French tanks arriving from neighboring Cote D’Ivoire, President Francois Hollande is in danger of leading his country into a fatal no-man’s land…
Hours after the French mobilization last Friday allegedly to save the Francophile administration in Mali from being over-run by rebels and Islamist militias from the northern territory, the Paris government was hailing the mission as a success. “We have halted the terrorists,” declared French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, while thanking British and American allies for supportive endorsements of his country’s action.
However, over the weekend the situation has turned decidedly pear-shaped for gung-ho France. A French helicopter pilot has been killed and there are unconfirmed reports of several civilian deaths from the airstrikes. Some 230,000 civilians have been displaced in the impoverished and drought-stricken country of 16 million.
More worrying for the French authorities, the separatist northern rebels seem to have quickly recovered from the initial aerial onslaught. While the French air force are still trying to help the Malian army retake the central town of Konna, which fell into rebel hands last Thursday - sparking France’s intervention - insurgents have outflanked their enemy and have pushed further south towards the capital Bamako. Earlier this week, rebels captured the town of Diabaly - only 350 kilometers from Bamako - and are threatening to penetrate well beyond the de facto north-south frontier that came into effect last April, when the Tuareg rebels and Islamists belonging to Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) declared autonomy in the northern territory.
While the French are busy bombing towns in the centre and far north such as Douentza, Gao and Kidal - said to be rebel strongholds - the insurgents have moved behind French and Malian forces located in central Mopti. Even at this early stage, the ostensible French objective of stabilizing the country has led to greater instability, and has served to expose the Bamako government as weaker than ever before.
Also worrying for Hollande is the fate of nine French hostages; eight in Mali and another believed to be still alive in Somalia. Last Friday within hours of the French intervention in Mali, its special forces botched a daring raid to rescue the hostage being held in the eastern Horn of Africa by the Islamist group, Al Shabab, in Somalia. Two French soldiers were officially killed in a fire-fight with the hostage takers. Local people say that eight civilians were also killed, allegedly by some 50 French marines when they first landed near Bulo Marer, south of the capital Mogadishu. Locals also claim that more French personnel were fatally wounded than the Paris government is acknowledging at this stage. Al Shabab have since posted images of one of the dead French soldiers on the Internet with taunting messages - “Was it worth it?” - to President Hollande.
The fate of the French captive in Somalia, Denis Allex, an intelligence officer, remains in the balance, with the French authorities bracing for more macabre and embarrassing news of his whereabouts in the coming days.
Islamist leader in Mali, Omar Ould Hamaha, told French media that Hollande’s government has “opened the gates of hell” and has fallen into “a trap worse than Afghanistan”.
Another Islamist leader, Abou Dardar, of the MUJWA, gave this grim warning in the light of the French actions. “France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France. Everywhere. In Bamako, in Africa, in Europe.”
With some 30,000 French civilian expatriates residing in its former African colonies, these threats of reprisals are grave cause for concern. The French authorities seem to have recklessly jettisoned the safety of these hostages and expatriates with their macho display of militarism.
And with events rapidly turning awry for the French in two far-flung African countries, one wonders how Francois Hollande will extricate his country from the unfolding mess?
For several months now, France has been pushing for an international intervention in Mali to quash the rebellious northern territory. Hollande has been portraying Mali as a haven for Islamic fundamentalists, which allegedly poses an imminent security threat as a launch pad for terrorism in Europe. This alarming view has been echoed by the American and British governments. At the end of last year, the head of US AFRICOM General Carter Ham characterized Mali as the new global base for al-Qaeda. Ironically, while the Western allies have been talking up the threat of Islamic terrorism in Mali, these same powers are in cahoots with similar Jihadi militants trying to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
There is more than a suspicion that the alleged Islamist threat in Mali is being inflated by France and its Western allies as a cynical pretext for yet another military campaign in Africa in pursuit of what are naked imperialist interests. Mali, and the West Africa region generally, is endowed with superabundant natural resources of oil, gas, minerals, ores, metals and agriculture - resources that remain mainly untapped and coveted by Western capital.
Another irony is that the flow of weapons and militants into northern Mali can be linked directly to NATO’s assisted overthrow of the government in Libya at the end of 2011. Following the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, many of the militants that were supporting his regime returned to their nomadic bases in northern Mali, taking their weapons with them. The security threat in the region, such as it is, is therefore a by-product of NATO’s intervention in Libya, which the French in particular were ardent proponents of.
Nevertheless, those contradictions aside, the Western powers have been urging the 15-nation West African bloc, ECOWAS, to mount a military mission into Mali to shore up the shaky government in Bamako and to crush the northern separatists. Last month, at the behest of Paris, Washington and London, the United Nations Security Council finally gave qualified approval for the African-led mission into Mali. However, that intervention was not anticipated until much later this year, in September at the earliest, pending the acquisition of funding, training and logistics for the nascent and largely untested ECOWAS force.
A week before the UNSC vote in December, the Malian interim Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was bounced out of office by Mali’s military junta, led by the American-trained Captain Amadou Sanogo Western diplomats then got nervous, including the Americans. They began emphasizing the need for cautious planning by the African intervention force in coordination with their Malian military counterparts. Notably, by contrast, the French threw caution to the wind and became singularly even more gung-ho. Philippe Lalliot, a French foreign ministry spokesman, said then “these developments underline the need for the rapid deployment of an African stabilization force.”
And it was largely due to French soliciting that the UNSC gave the go-ahead for the African-led ECOWAS mission into Mali on December 20.
What is now clear is that French ambitions for intervention in Mali have jumped the gun. Not willing to wait for the combined African force to mount its operations later this year, as most diplomats were assuming, the French have decided to go it alone.
Washington and London have both publicly expressed support for the latest French intervention in Mali, even though it seems that these allies were taken by surprise by the French initiative. In retrospect, there seems to have been a subterranean clash of intentions between the Western powers with regard to Mali. Washington, which has spent some USD600 million over several years training the Malian army and developing close links, appears to have shared the Malian military’s more gradualist approach to implementing a counterinsurgency strategy in the north. The deposed premier Diarra, who was aligned with Paris, wanted a more immediate military solution in combination with the ECOWAS force - which also seems to have been the French preferred option.
The question is: was the removal of Diarra last month an American-inspired spanner in the wheel for hasty French military ambitions in Mali?
France has evidently pushed ahead with the military agenda in Mali, and while the Americans appear supportive for now, at least in public, one wonders if there are not concerns in Washington and London that Paris has impetuously broken ranks and created an incendiary situation in Mali. Not only in Mali, but in Somalia and elsewhere across Africa. The closure of borders by neighboring Algeria this week is indicative of apprehensions that the French may have unleashed instability across the Sahel.
A headline on France 24 mid-week may reveal more than was intended: “France seeks allies in Mali operation”. For a start, the word “operation” is something of a trite euphemism. A more accurate term would be “aggression”. The UNSC approval for the African-led ECOWAS force at the end of last month was not the final green light. The force was obliged to subsequently clear its plans in Mali with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon once they had been assembled - most likely taking several more months. So, the French intervention in Mali does not strictly have a UNSC mandate and therefore its legality is disputable.
On the face of it, France has acted unilaterally and without authorization, that is, illegally. As if by way of an afterthought, the UNSC has this week unanimously endorsed the French action, but the fact remains that France had already embarked on a military attack on a sovereign country, without any legal mandate. Only a few months ago, Francois Hollande was talking up a “reset” in French relations with its former colonies in Africa, in an attempt to convey a new hands-off approach by the old colonial master. Hollande also vowed back in October that with regard to Mali there would be “no French military boots on the ground”. That supposed reset in French foreign relations now stands as a cynical shambles.
Despite the initial crowing of military success at halting the terrorists in Mali, the French government seems to be back-pedaling. French Foreign Minister Fabius has now taken to emphasizing that his country’s military involvement was only ever meant to be “a short term” contingency. He said it would be “over in a matter of weeks” and was aimed at paving the way for the African-led military mission of the ECOWAS bloc. Sure enough, troops from neighboring Nigeria, Senegal, Benin, Niger and Togo are due to start arriving in Mali over the coming days and weeks. This deployment is months ahead of what was envisaged at the UN.
Thus it would seem that the French, having gauchely jumped into Mali, are now set to hand over the problem of containing the ensuing instability to Africans.
But the French will find that they cannot simply wash their hands of the imbroglio. The large-scale military build-up by France has inevitably committed Paris to a long-term station, even if it tries to resort to a background role. Already the initial French troop deployment of 550 last week is set to multiply to 2,500 only a few days later. President Hollande is saying that the France will stay in Mali until the country is “safe and has a stable government”.
There is also a question of the military viability of the planned African-led mission, which is being lined up to take over from the French. Some 3,500 ECOWAS troops are to join a ramshackle Malian army of 6,000. The knitting together of these disparate units is untested and dubious. The Malian military brass has expressed discontent about the prospect of foreign forces interfering in its territory - albeit under the remit of neighborly cooperation. It should be noted too that the ECOWAS mission is to be headed up by Nigeria, whose military has a notorious record of indiscipline and violations among its own population.
Assuming the military coalition can find a modicum of collaboration, the next major problem is how it will engage the northern guerrilla. Mali’s upper territory covers an area the size of France or the state of Texas. Yet the population is less than two million. It is an unforgiving barren terrain of endless Saharan desert that the nomadic people and their fighters have mastered over many centuries. Hunting down guerrilla in this vast emptiness is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack - a task that will not be lessened even with the promised French, American and British surveillance drones.
Added to this challenge are the facts that the military from the ECOWAS countries have previously only had light peacekeeping experience in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Now, they are expected to take on battle-hardened and well-armed guerrilla, which the French have already found out to their cost this past week. Plus, the dark-skinned ECOWAS forces from Sub-Saharan African countries are going into unknown territory to confront light-skinned Tuareg and Berbers residing among an indistinguishable civilian population. That’s tantamount to putting a target sign on the backs of these neophyte ECOWAS soldiers. And although the French and their NATO allies probably were counting on taking a backseat planning role in Mali’s counterinsurgency war, these powers are at risk of being dragged into a frontline deployment in a bid to salvage the inevitable military losses. Assuming, of course, that the Americans and British imperialist “friends” don’t leave the French high and dry in the Malian desert. Echoes of Suez there.
All in all, there is a doomed sense of déjà vu in Mali. Another French military disaster in Africa looms. Plus ca change…
**This article was originally published on Strategic Culture Foundation.