Just 10 days into its military intervention in Mali, there are already signs that France may have taken on more than it bargained for. The West African country may become to French President Francois Hollande what Iraq was for U.S. President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair: a destructive, open-ended quagmire with wide-ranging, unforeseen consequences.
France’s foreign minister has said the campaign against Islamist rebels, who have taken control of the northern two-thirds of its former colony, will last “a matter of weeks.” However, subsequent statements by Hollande suggest that he is either contradicting his foreign minister, or that this timeframe is wishful thinking.
The president said French forces will leave when there is “security in Mali, a legitimate authority, an electoral process, and no more terrorists threatening the integrity of the country.” He added that his troops will stay “as long as is necessary so that terrorism can be defeated” in West Africa.
Hollande is either delusional in thinking that this utopia can be created within weeks - if at all - or he is preparing for the very long haul. After all, more than a decade since the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the two countries are still a mess.
Nearly two-thirds of French people support the intervention, according to a poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion. Quick and decisive military operations abroad often boost leaders’ ratings at home, and Hollande may be counting on this to alleviate his unpopularity over the economy. However, public opinion usually turns when a campaign lasts longer than expected or promised.
As such, the president may have backed himself into a corner: either he keeps troops in Mali until he deems his goals achieved, or he brings them home beforehand, both scenarios likely resulting in a domestic backlash. Many French will resent being told to tighten their belts while money is spent long-term on a foreign campaign that they may increasingly view as not worth the cost.
There is no sign yet that other Western forces are willing to engage directly, and the deployment of West African forces is unlikely to hasten France’s exit. Among the contributors are countries facing their own instability, and Hollande’s unilateral action means they have to organise themselves and join combat much earlier than originally planned (September).
Some 5,800 African troops have been pledged, but so far only 100 have arrived. “The capabilities of the Malian army and those of other West African countries that are supposed to join the operation are too weak to turn the tide,” says Zaki Laidi, professor of international relations at The Institute of Political Studies in Paris. It is “clear that French troops will remain at the frontline,” adds BBC correspondent Thomas Fessy.
Events on the ground
French officials have admitted that the rebels - who at one point were making territorial gains despite the intervention - are putting up “far stronger” resistance than anticipated. This may explain France’s defence minister saying troop numbers could exceed the 2,500 originally pledged.
“A loose alliance of rebels from Al Qaeda’s North African wing and local groups has been united by the threat of foreign intervention,” according to Reuters. “People in the north don’t have any choice now but to stand together,” said Algabass Ag Intallah, a senior member of the Islamist group Ansar Dine. “This is an aggression. We all have to defend ourselves.”
Even if the rebels are pushed back, or defeated in the conventional sense, they are likely to remain an effective guerrilla force. Their determination, fanaticism and ruthlessness bode ill not just for Malians, but also for the several thousand French citizens living in Mali, who may well be targeted.
Likewise, Human Rights Watch says it has received credible reports of serious abuses - including killings - being committed by Malian security forces, particularly against Tuaregs and Arabs, ethnic groups most associated with the rebels.
If this continues, it will become increasingly difficult for France and other states to justify supporting Mali’s army, not to mention its fractious polity. The pressure will also rise with every civilian casualty - a tragic but inevitable part of military campaigns.
The Tuareg dimension
The Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) - comprised of Tuaregs seeking self-rule in the country’s north - has expressed its willingness to join the fight against Islamist rebels, who were initially allied to the MNLA before sidelining the movement.
This presents an opportunity for France and Malian authorities against the Islamists, but only if pledges are made and implemented towards Tuareg aspirations for self-rule. Otherwise, even if the Islamists are defeated, the north of the country will continue to be a hotbed of Tuareg resentment and militancy.
Reasons for intervening
Hollande’s decision to unilaterally intervene in Mali - instead of being part of a UN-backed European mission to provide logistical support to African forces, as originally planned - goes against his image as a dove.
“Not only does it contradict [his] earlier commitment to scale down involvement in France’s former colonies, but it also flies in the face of his decision to withdraw troops from the 12-year struggle by the western allies against the Taliban in Afghanistan,” wrote award-winning French-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani.
It has also fuelled the belief of those who see the intervention, rightly or wrongly, as an imperialist aggression, or yet another Western ‘crusade’ against the Muslim world.
Hollande may have felt that the Islamist rebels were forcing his hand. He may have feared that to ignore pleas by Mali’s government to counter their advance southward towards the capital would make him look weak, and damage France’s standing in a region that it has traditionally regarded as its natural sphere of influence.
He may have calculated that a total takeover of Mali by Islamists would jeopardise surrounding French garrisons, as well as vital strategic and economic interests in neighbouring states, such as Niger’s uranium and Algeria’s gas.
However, Hollande’s belief in a military solution is under serious question. “In the vast, arid lands of the north, even most Western armies with all their modern technology might struggle to find small bands of rebel and Islamist forces who can simply disappear into the landscape,” says BBC diplomatic and defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus.
“The political crisis in Mali preceded the Islamists’ advance,” he points out, adding that the country’s problems “are equally part of a wider regional crisis extending across the Sahel. This involves a complex set of problems - poverty, drought, political instability and corruption.”
Hollande’s strategy seems to reflect a naive hope that running across quicksand will get him to the other side.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash