French operation fraught with uncertainty
ANALYSIS:For all of the West’s declared ‘solidarity’, in real terms France is on its own
France may not have wanted to find itself in this position – after all, its leaders spent the previous six months insisting there would be no French boots on the ground in Mali – but five days into its intervention in the country, Paris is projecting bullish satisfaction with its fast-evolving mission in the north African desert.
It points to a rapid success in achieving its initial aim of stopping the rebels’ advance on Mali’s second city, Mopti, thereby averting what western and regional powers feared most: an Islamist takeover of Bamako, the capital. The French took just hours to mobilise a force of more than 500 men, and by the second day the assault had been widened to target militants’ strongholds in far-off northern towns such as Gao and Kidal.
Global powers have rowed in behind France, and it scored a diplomatic success on Monday night by winning unanimous support for its actions from the UN Security Council. President François Hollande has received backing from political opponents at home, and polls show a majority of voters are also behind the intervention.
For all that, however, Hollande’s first military operation is fraught with risk and uncertainty. Declarations of western solidarity there may be, but in real terms that will only extend to logistical and moral support. The bottom line is that, for now at least, France is on its own in Mali.
Scale of the task
It faces not a single, conventional enemy but a diffuse, mobile network of well-armed insurgent groups with disparate aims and intimate knowledge of the theatre of war: a largely uninhabited patch of desert about the size of Spain.
The scale of the task France faces was underlined on Monday, when, as its planes were pounding targets in the centre and far-north of Mali, a rebel convoy of 70 pick-up trucks swept into the western town of Diabaly, which was in state-controlled territory and lies within 400km of Bamako.
France has made clear that it doesn’t intend to be drawn into the kind of protracted land war its opponents have promised. It hopes Mali’s neighbours, notably Senegal, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Niger, will send troops to Mali quickly and will soon be in a position to take charge of the mission. But doubts persist over the capacity of these forces.
Hollande yesterday set out aims for the mission: to end “terrorist aggression”, secure Bamako (where 6,000 French citizens reside), and allow Mali to “recover its territorial integrity”. France had no desire to stay in Mali, he said.
But these are vague aims, and ultimately subjective. For example, are factions in the north – al-Qaeda’s north African wing, Mali’s home-grown Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar Dine rebel groups and Tuareg separatists – all being grouped into one? Is the objective to chase all 2,000-3,000 of their militants out of Mali (a prospect that would surely alarm neighbours such as Algeria and Niger)? Will France stay until full state control has been reasserted in the north?
Hollande’s ambiguity suggests France wants to leave its options open for now. But this much seems clear: the news that Paris is planning to increase its deployment from 750 to 2,500 men, and that 30 of its tanks have crossed into Mali from Côte d’Ivoire, suggest foreign minister Laurent Fabius was being optimistic when he predicted France would withdraw “within weeks”.