Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Hollande's lonely war in Mali - Iraq revisited?

Al Qaida fighters in Gao, Mali. (Photo Issaf Sanogi AFP/Getty Images)
After two years of terrorism and territorial conquest in Mali by Al Qaida and its affiliates, France has decided to act to put a stop to it. The principal reasons and objectives are threefold;

To eliminate Islamist terrorists, regain control of the country and secure its borders.
To stop Islamic fundamentalists taking over Northern Africa and thus putting themselves within easy reach of Europe.
To foster a climate which would favour the creation, after many years of anarchy, of a democratic government in Mali.

All that looks great on paper, but then again so did George W. Bush's plans to rid the world of Saddam Hussein, install democracy in Iraq and rid it of terrorists, and we all know how that ended.

Mali is twice as big as France, and the insurgents are largely battle-trained for having served in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world. Many of them are foreigners (Libyans, Yemenites etc) and they see Mali as a vulnerable and thus primary target in their efforts to gain a foothold in Africa.

France began its intervention at the end of last week, and it began it alone. The idea was that it would consist of a few weeks of bombing from a safe height and then everyone goes home and opens a bottle of beer, the enemy defeated. But that's not how things have turned out.

The effort got off to a bad start with a botched attempt to save a French hostage which ended with the death of two soldiers as well as the hostage, and a helicopter pilot was killed in another mission at about the same time. The French government acknowledged that they had underestimated the enemy's military capabilities.

Since France's initial attacks the rebels have managed to reorganise themselves to the extent that they have made further advances in the west of the country. And so it was announced yesterday that France would send 2000 ground troops to help the overwhelmed Malian army to stop the rebels' progress and push them back. Troops on the ground then, and thus further casualties.

And as if things weren't bad enough already, today's events have changed the whole face of this conflict. Hundreds of people were taken hostage today by Islamic militants acting in the name of the Malian war at an oil refinery in Algeria. The hostages include an undetermined number of Americans, Brits, French citizens and others. Some were taken hostage and driven away, some - including a French national - were shot dead during the initial engagement, the Algerian workers were allowed to go free, and this evening sees the hostage-takers surrounded by Algerian troops and demanding to be allowed to take the rest of their hostages back to Mali. The French war cabinet is to meet this evening.

In other words, this war is spreading its tentacles into another country. Many countries in this part of Africa have sizeable French expat populations and there is every reason to believe that the rebels will try to drag other nations into the war.

All of which explains why Hollande felt obliged to issue a statement this evening in which he affirmed that he would, in accordance with the Constitution, consult parliament if this war is still ongoing after four months.

Four months!!!??

Yes, four months, at least.

Two, or even three, four, five or ten thousand men on the ground, even with decisive air support, cannot hope to control a country as large as Mali, or hope to keep tabs on what their enemy is doing, and where. There are several porous borders with Mali, and all of them are used as refuges by the insurgents.

France seems to have forgotten the lessons it learned during its disastrous campaigns in Indochina and Algeria, both of which were doomed from the start. The objectives that France has set for itself in Mali cannot possibly be achieved by France alone, and France is only alone because Hollande has made a hasty decision which has taken its allies, including those African countries who are trying to put together a peacekeeping plan, by surprise.

Make no mistake, this war, like that of Bush, has been more or less unilaterally declared, and, like Bush's war, and for the same reasons, it shall drag on and on only to ultimately fail.


  1. I have been trying also to find out what is going on in Mali. I just read that the UK is sending two C-17 and Canada one C-17, Belgium two C-130 and Denmark 1 C-130, Africans countries are sending troops: Nigeria 900, as well as Burkina Faso, Togo, etc for a total of close to 3,300 troops. The US is supposed to send spy planes, drones and refueling tankers. That does not sound good.

    1. Hi Vagabonde, and I've read similar estimates of allied support, although I also read that satellite and other surveillance intelligence is also being given to the French, by America in particular.

      Whatever, as I write this we're still waiting for confirmation of the number of killed and injured at the refinery in Algeria. Another snippet, French journalists are (quite rightly imho) beginning to complain about the French military and other authorities' information lockdown. No journalists are allowed into most areas of Mali, even accompanied by or embedded within military units, and what little information is being given is being doled out little by little. All governments do this of course, but the French - as well as the Israelis - are particularly loath to have journalists around.

      At the end of the day though, the French are going to need assistance soon if they are to avoid losing their grip on the situation, particularly now that things may spill over into other areas. 'Wait and see', as the French now say in English?

  2. If any country (France this time) is fighting, it is because there are interests to be defended.
    I read very quickly the other day that during the last US elections, during a debate, a journalist asked Obama and Romney about Mali. They both looked like deer caught in headlights. They had no clue (or didn't want to answer) but journalists have known that Mali is a big deal and the rise of terrorism in that country has to be stopped.
    Somalia? Zero oil. Nobody is trying to bring democracy to that ruined country.
    It will be interesting to find out what will happen in the next few weeks.

    1. Hi Nadege and yes, the next few weeks are likely to throw up all sorts of surprises.

      Fom what I understand, Mali itself doesn't have any large amounts of major resources such as oil, gas, uranium and others, but, and very importantly, its geographical position helps France to access countries further south which do have them.

      And Mali is also an ex-colony so it's a large market for French-produced goods and a member of the Francophone club, whose objectives you are surely aware of.

      Yup, no interests to be defended = no war. That's as sure as eggs is eggs...