THE FRENCH INTERVENTIONMonday, January 14, 2013
Cat and mouse in Mali
For the Herald
Control of skies will not mend disarray in Bamako
Screaming across the desert skies, Mirage jets and attack helicopters this weekend announced a new front in the myriad wars of Mali. In a period of less than one year, this poor and largely barren country in northern Africa has seen rebels secede in the north, the military depose the president in the centre, and impudent Islamist renegades sweep hither and thither as if they were in the golden days of the Caliphate.
It took last week's threat to the nation's artery and its heart, the capital Bamako, to stir finally the dormant colonial ogre, now busy belching fire.
The French political establishment has by and large formed single file behind the intervention ordered by President François Hollande. On Thursday night, having seized control of the town of Konna, the Islamist vanguard was in sight of the gateway to the south; and from there, the capital Bamako. The fractious and resentful rump of the Malian army seemed to offer no line of resistance. A full Islamist takeover of Mali would supposedly have taken a matter of days; French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared yesterday that, "if France had not intervened, there would no longer be a Malian state."
Elsewhere on the planet, the oblivion of a deeply divided nation can occur without any prospect of a European military flyover. Take Syria, a topic which sees most European governments diving under the nearest bush. So the French government has to tread a tightrope on Mali. On one side, it must not give the impression that it is making excessive sacrifices on a post-colonial gamble in the Sahara — a goal not helped by the first French death in combat last weekend. On the other, it has to be careful never to understate the existential and emotive abyss of a national security threat. As Le Drian added yesterday, "France is at war with terrorism, wherever it is, in order to preserve its security and that of Mali, which is a friend. Terrorism is the sole and essential objective."
It does not take huge wits to see the problem that France and its European allies will encounter in balancing the mentality of light-footprint warfare with the massive ambition of felling terrorists, wherever they may pop up. We have been here before, of course. Occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the former concluded in 2011 and the other slated for overdue termination next year, taught more lessons than it has so far been possible to absorb on how not to build a state and not to fight insurgents. One unequivocal effect on strategy has been to deify drone warfare, used willy-nilly across lands with terrorist pockets — in Yemen, Somalia, and along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. The other, related effect has been to convince reticent Western political leaders to keep their men to the skies, as they did with some success during the NATO operation in Libya.
Winding up the Bush wars and dominating airspace, however, is fast becoming cold comfort. Self-congratulation on the Libyan campaign has given way to the realization that the new country is a mosaic of militia factions showered by oil. More pertinently, the aerial blueprint to topple Gaddafi did not care to inspect the minutiae of the dictator's hold on power. Without their benefactor and employer in Tripoli, thousands of armed Tuareg militiamen had nothing better to do than wander back over several sandy borders to their homeland in northern Mali, whereupon they started a new fight in January last year. Northern Mali, it is best remembered, is one of Africa's poorest and least productive areas.
The crisis that began with the Tuaregs' pronouncement of secession has since ripened into an almighty war of many dimensions. And, as a result, there is no denying that the French are wise to be fearful over a spreading conflict epidemic. The main jihadist player in the rebel camp, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has carried out operations in neighbouring Mauritania and Niger, the principal supply source for the uranium used in France's nuclear reactors, which are in turn responsible for 80 percent of the country's electricity.
Perhaps worst of all, this putative threat to Saharan stability, and to warm and lit homes in the Loire, could not be mounted by a more unappealing rabble. AQIM, and its allies and schisms, appear to be a mixture of gnarled terrorists and so-called gangster-jihadists, whose earnings come from taking Western hostages and funnelling cocaine to Europe's leisure classes, and whose manifestation take the form of brute armed force, sharia law, mutilation of thieves, and desecration of Timbuktu's shrines.
The red line of security has accordingly been drawn, and cat-and-mouse battle can now ensue across northern Mali. Neighbouring states and France's NATO partners, including Britain and the United States, are also ready to contribute their military assets under the framework of a UN Security Council resolution on Mali agreed last October. But control of the skies and sophisticated forays by special forces into enemy encampments will not mend the political disarray in Bamako. It will not stop the pan-regional, post-Arab Spring leakage of arms and drugs and radical ideas across North Africa, in which government, military and rebels have all had a hand in Mali. Nor will it do anything to bring prosperity to the Tuaregs, or reconciliation between castes and classes nursing millennial grudges.
A wandering and preaching force of zealots is possibly no match for the high-tech kinetics of a Western army. But in a maze of political grudges, full of unsung young men and unmarked borders, there is always the likelihood of finding a new corner to hatch the Salafist master-plan and wait for the noises overhead to die down.