When it comes to going to war, it’s not too often we get to see France beat the US to the punch. But in the case of Mali, the troubled north African country with a serious jihadi problem, the French are playing the usual American role of global terrorist-hunter, launching a string of airstrikes and deploying 2,500 troops to its former colony in what could end up being a long and dirty war, à la Afghanistan. Since its unwillingness to support the war in Iraq in 2003 (which launched a mindless jingoistic shit-storm in the States), the French track record of interventionism has actually been more belligerent than widely held American perceptions would have it.
Besides leading the NATO charge in Libya against Gaddafi in 2011, leading up to the Malian campaign, France actually sent troops to two different countries within a month. In December, soldiers were deployed to the Central African Republic and then, in early January, a helicopter commando mission in Somalia failed to free a French hostage. They also maintain the largest and readiest Western military presence on the continent, with permanently stationed troops in countries like Chad and Gabon. Not to mention the rich history of corrupt African dictators being propped up by French political leaders in exchange for syphoning natural resources.
When it comes to Africa, since the wave of independence movements directly following WWII, the French secretly considered the continent its colonial playground, even without the title of imperial overlord. In fact, there’s evidence of all sorts of sinister stuff, like alleged connections between Hutu militiamen in Rwanda and French military officials before the 1994 genocide.
In “Françafrique”, colonial influences have translated into extensive economic holdings that a delicate French economy now requires. While the current intervention in Mali could easily be justified on humanitarian grounds, or – if you’re feeling all War-On-Terror about it – preventing al-Qaeda from finding a new home, if Iraq taught us anything, it's that war is rarely fought without economic interests at play. And with the rampant fiscal invasion of Chinese entities threatening France’s traditionally dominant sphere of influence in Africa, the war in Mali helps reinvent French power in the region.
Just consider that French state-owned nuclear engineering company Areva has huge interests in neighbouring Niger (the number four producer of uranium, globally) and the nearby Central African Republic. Add to that Guinea and Mauritania’s valuable iron deposits and Burkina Faso and Chad’s major cotton resources, and you can do the maths. If the contagion of militancy from an Islamist Malian territory spread cross-borders, it could legitimately threaten those vital interests.
Even if French intervention is on the basis of money (or defending their geopolitical standing, depending on your perspective), there’s no denying the rebels would’ve easily taken Bamako from the fractured Malian army and instituted a morally bereft sharia-state based on biblical shit, like stoning people to death, if the French hadn’t intervened. The real question in the coming weeks is if any other Western countries will join the French war-party and expand their support beyond measly things like one transport plane (as in the case of Canada).
Yet Libyan intervention resulted in the proliferation of Gadaffi’s arsenal on the black market, which directly armed most of the northern rebels and jihadists now plaguing Mali. Most Western countries are still reeling from that obvious fuck-up, and the fatigue of the last two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are making it tough to even contemplate more intervention, especially when the crisis in Syria continues to loom.
“From my perspective, there isn’t a public appetite for another long engagement like Afghanistan,” said a former military junior officer from a NATO country who did not want to be identified. “That being said, soldiers will always want to go to any war or operation. In fact, if we did go to Mali, the first people to sign up would be the people who served combat tours in Afghanistan.”
There is clearly war exhaustion in the West, but the fiscal climate of the last five years hasn’t eliminated the desire to engage in foreign intervention at a foreign policy level. Instead, it scaled back the realistic financial commitments a military can make to operations, due to the typical deficit reductions of a post-recession. “There’s never been a discussion of stopping operations because Afghanistan is coming to an end. We deploy when the government needs us to. The message is that we will have to do the same operations with fewer resources.”
When they first showed up in early January, France deployed combat troops and warplanes that devastated rebel targets all over the north. Even so, the islamists managed to take the town of Diabaly (which was only just retaken this week), shoot down a helicopter and control most of the ground-level terrain. The real fear is that the hardcore fighters will lose major battles, fade into the civilian populations of towns (just like the Taliban did) and continue a protracted insurgency. Not to mention that the vast northern desert is impossible to police and allows space for groups like AQIM to regroup. Which is why French led forces now need more ground assaults to secure the region, all in the midst of escalating ethnic tensions; Malian forces have reportedly committed reprisals against militants.
If that’s the case, then chances are France will continue to do the heavy lifting with actual boots on the ground (along with ECOWAS soldiers who have rookie desert-war capability), and you’ll see NATO countries sending their special forces to train troops in surrounding countries like Niger, or continuing with surveillance support. Full blown military intervention on the scale of something like Iraq is unlikely. Either way, we might be entering an era of expanding French military force, which only a couple of years ago seemed as likely as Gaddafi being toppled.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @BMakuch
Enjoy Ben’s breakdowns of international issues? Try these: