The latest episode in the on again, off again War Against Jihad is taking place in the west African country of Mali, with the Islamists being confronted by France.
At first glance, this would seem an unlikely scenario. France’s President François Hollande campaigned on pulling France’s small force of 2,000 troops out of Afghanistan and cutting back on what’s left of France’s military, and the votes of France’s restless Muslim population were a decisive part of putting Hollande’s Socialists in office. But the reality is that the French had a great deal to lose if they had simply allowed an Islamist takeover of Mali.
A great deal of France’s commerce, influence and prestige is tied up in the French Union, an organization of France and its former colonies somewhat resembling the British Commonwealth.
The French have already seen its former colony Mauritania crumble to the Islamist onslaught. And just weeks ago, the French government conspicuously failed to rescue the incumbent leader in another former French colony, the Central African Republic, where President Francois Bozize no alternative but to accept a power-sharing arrangement with insurgents threatening to take over the mineral rich country.
These incidents endangered “Francafrique”, a long standing arrangement under which the French supported African leaders aligned to French business and policy interests, particularly in the mining and oil sectors. The arrangement was profitable and useful for both France and its former African colonies, but only as long as the French were seen as a viable and desirable partner willing to provide backup when needed. Mali was simply a domino that even President Hollande couldn’t afford to see fall.
There was also an issue of protecting the estimated 7,000 French nationals in Mali, as well as rescuing half a dozen of them the insurgents, a part of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) known as Ansar al Dine had already taken hostage, although now that the French Army has boots on the ground, it’s unlikely the hostages will be recovered alive.
The insurgents had already had seized a large base in the northern part of the country after the confusion of last April’s military coup, with its unofficial capital the old trading city of Timbuktu, where historically the desert and sub-Saharan Africa met to trade slaves, gold, ivory, spices and grain. Today, the trade also includes heroin and cocaine, with AQIM financing its operations by running drugs into Europe.
The latest offensive by the Islamists overwhelmed the Malian army, with the rebels seizing control of the strategic town of Konno, only 375 miles ( 600 kilometers) north of the capital of Bamako. So the French decided to act, ordering 550 troops, C-160 transport aircraft and attack helicopters to beat the Islamist insurgents back.
Ironically, Ansar al Dine got a lot of their initial arms for the offensive from Moamar Khaddaffi’s stockpiles, yet another undesirable side effect of the Libya intervention the French participated in to save their oil contracts with the Benghazi based rebels.
The initial scenario that was planned didn’t include the French at all. The UN operated with its normal ineffectiveness, passing a toothless UNSC resolution back in December, 2012 for ‘outside actors’ to help assist the Malian army retake the territory in the north held by AQIM and their rebel allies.Originally, that was supposed to be a military operation under the auspices of the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), featuring African troops from the 17 member nations.
But there was never much of a consensus about which countries were going to provide what military aid or whom was paying for it, the planned 3,000 man force would not have been able to be deployed for months, other regional powers like Algeria were against an African-based intervention on their borders and even the government of Mali had second thoughts because previous African peacekeeping forces had been implicated in incidents of rape, looting, torture and other human rights violations.
So when the rebels attacked and began advancing on the capital, Acting Malian President Dioncounda Traoré begged the French to intervene, and Hollande’s hand was forced.
In spite of the UN resolution, there are reportedly no plans by the French to drive the Islamists out of the Northern part of Mali, but merely to hold on to the rest of the country until they can be replaced by African forces, or beef up the Malian Army. There are a number of problems with this approach.
It commits the French forces to a defensive war of attrition, with the Islamist rebels able to strike and then melt back into their 300,000 square mile desert stronghold or over the border to Islamist Mauritania.And from Mauritania, the rebels can pretty much launch strikes in Mali at will.
Deploying African troops to take over for the French and/or building up a retrained and rearmed Malian army are going to take months. While the French maintain bases in West Africa (a Foreign Legion base in Gabon and an air base in Senegal), its an open question how long they can afford to maintain the current boots on the ground military operation.
Or how long it will remain politically popular. At present, widespread publicity of atrocities in the north as sharia is imposed as well as the small number of casualties thus far have given the Hollande government a decent amount of support for the intervention from most of the French public. But if it drags on, casualties mount up and France’s large Muslim population gets restive, that could change.
There are already reports of French Muslims going to North Africa to train as part of AQIM, and both AQIM and members of Ansar al Dine have threatened terrorist strikes in France itself as well as on the expatriate French communities in Africa, particularly in neighboring Muslim countries. Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been calling for a 9/11 style attack in Paris for years now. There’s no telling how the French public might react if the intervention in Mali resulted in terrorist attacks in France itself.
The other strategic approach, retaking Northern Mali, destroying Ansar al Dine and driving them and all other elements of AQIM out of the country represent a more decisive approach, but calls for a much bigger military commitment than France is probably able to make right now, and getting NATO and particularly the U.S. involved raises the risk of Mali becoming another Afghanistan, especially if the intervention is handled as badly as AfPak was.
Former CIA Director and U.S. General David Petraeus, in a quote that was a lot more accurate than he probably realized once referred to counter-terrorism campaigns as a “whack-a-mole” policy, saying that “you need to hit all the moles at once”.
Or, as I’d put it, you need to defeat the moles by removing the mole’s main havens and their sources of support and funding,and make it clear that harboring or helping the moles in any way is going to be so costly that it can’t even be considered.
We’ve pretty much done just the opposite for the last twelve years, which is why we’re still playing whack-a-mole rather than winning a war.
Authored By J O S H U A P U N D I T