France pulled into Mali by past – and future – entanglements

Recent examples of western armed intervention around the world have not ended well, and this must be a concern for France's Francois Hollande.

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To those who have not studied the Sahel region of Africa - which is most people - France's sudden decision to intervene in Mali is deeply perplexing. There is no oil or other natural resources (as in Iraq) that merit a potentially long and bloody engagement by an old colonial power.

Even more confusingly, the start of the French bombing campaign coincided with a botched commando raid in Somalia to rescue a hostage. To a casual radio listener, Mali and Somalia sound rather similar. Are they neighbours? In fact, capital to capital - Mogadishu to Bamako - they are 6,000 kilometres apart, farther than the distance between Abu Dhabi and London.

Then, within days of the start of the French campaign, jihadists in Algeria attacked a gas installation - something that never happened even in the bitter years of that country's civil war in the 1990s - and took dozens of foreign workers hostage.

For those who like simple answers, the Mali intervention fits neatly into a pattern: this is the seventh country (after Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia) where Muslims have been bombed by western powers over the past four years.

For France to be seen to join a pattern set by the Americans is disturbing, as it has been careful to keep a distance from US entanglements in the Muslim world. During the invasion of Iraq, France's then president, Jacques Chirac, led the European opposition. In November, Paris pulled its last combat troops out of Afghanistan.

Mali may appear to be a backwater, embodying neither threat nor lure. But in fact this is a truly international story, one that exemplifies how even the most modest of countries can turn, in the space of a few months, into a global crisis point.

In recent years, Mali has been a poster boy for western-funded development. Its armed forces - the ones that have been joining the insurgents or dropping their weapons and fleeing - were being trained by the US for regional peace-keeping duties. Just the sort of duties, in fact, that would allow the former colonial power to stay away.

But Mali was poisoned by the drugs trade. Colombian cocaine gangs discovered West Africa as a smuggling route via the Sahara into Europe. The Malian political class grew fat and lazy on the trade, while the northern tribes, whose business for centuries was cross-Sahara caravans, got rich on drug smuggling and kidnapping for ransom.

As the Malian state was being hollowed out by drug money, all the while being praised by development agencies as a model of democratic transition, the downfall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya ignited a crisis that few, if any, policymakers had predicted. Qaddafi's African mercenaries, including thousands of Malians, fled south, equipped with 4x4s and tons of weaponry. The Islamists that Qaddafi had persecuted and locked up were freed, and able to arm themselves with looted weaponry from the arsenals of the southern Libyan city of Sabha.

An uprising in the north of Mali last year did not attract much attention: the Tuareg desert-dwellers had long chafed at being ruled by Africans from the south, and their uprisings were almost routine. But the Libyan blowback transformed it. The Tuareg nationalists got into a marriage of convenience with the jihadists and took over more than half the country. The jihadists in Ansar Dine and their allies, however, proved to be the stronger and more ruthless party, and seized control.

As the western powers debated how to intervene, and West African countries were reluctant to send troops until the Malian army was rebuilt, the jihadists used their wealth to buy more arms and ammunition and made contact with similar organisations, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria.

While outside powers dithered, they launched an assault on Bamako before the French or the West Africans troops were in place. It is estimated that they have a solid core of 3,000 to 4,000 trained fighters, although their lines of communication are stretched as they go south towards the capital.

The jihadists go under various names, but Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat who was held hostage by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) for four months, says of his captors: "I have never seen a group of more focused and selfless young men in my life."

The worry for the European and North African governments is that northern Mali will become a training ground for jihadists.

The interim president of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki, told me in November that his country's foreign policy challenge was to restore order to Mali. Otherwise, he said, Mali would become a new Afghanistan, where the unemployed youth of the Maghreb would get training and experience in warfare, and then return to fight in Tunisia.

This view is certainly shared in France. But it is not just a European issue. The journalist Paul Melly, a specialist on francophone Africa, points out that West Africa as a whole is making good economic progress, both the eight countries that use the West African franc as well as Ghana and Nigeria.

"If the jihadists break through into southern Mali - demonstrating that in the space of 12 months an entire state could be effectively wrecked by small bands of largely foreign extremists - this would be a devastating reverse for West Africa as a whole," he writes. And that would mean unstoppable flows of emigrants trying to get into Europe.

The reasons for international action in Mali are clear. Whether long-range bombing raids and the presence of 2,500 French troops will be enough to restore order to Mali is an open question.

Recent examples of western armed intervention around the world are not promising. Optimists point to Britain's military intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, which halted a rebel advance on the capital and paved the way for the end of civil war. Even Somalia is now making progress towards stability, after more than 20 years of fighting. But President Francois Hollande must surely be kept awake at night at the prospect of 20 years of fighting these unnaturally focused militants.

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