Mali: not another Afghanistan
As tensions mount in Mali and Algeria, it’s feared that northwest Africa could become ‘Europe’s Afghanistan’. The region is dangerous, but the threat is being overstated
It was a Saturday morning in November 2010, and Amadou Toumani Touré, the then president of Mali, was sitting in his magnificent palace on a hilltop above Bamako, the bustling capital. At the time, well-armed Islamist rebels were becoming more assertive in Mali’s vast northern desert, and western governments were growing impatient with the inability – or unwillingness, as some saw it – of Touré’s government to contain the problem.
Just weeks earlier, citing the worsening terror threat, France had urged its citizens in the north and east of Mali to leave immediately. As a result, the vital tourist industry, which is usually at its peak in November and December, was at a standstill.
Touré was clearly feeling aggrieved. Mali was “a victim, a hostage” of Islamists who had come from elsewhere, principally Algeria, he complained to The Irish Times, and they could be defeated only by a concerted effort from all the region’s powers. Yet Touré also protested that the French were overreacting and that Bamako remained in control of Malian territory. “I think it’s exaggerated. So far, the Islamists’ modus operandi is that they have always responded to attack. They never take the initiative.”
Touré’s confidence was misplaced, as Mali would quickly learn. Two years on, he is now in exile, having been deposed in a military coup last April.
An alliance of Islamist militias took advantage of his departure by seizing a vast swathe of northern Mali, and their surprise attempt to advance south to the capital earlier this month was the spark for a French air and ground assault that has focused world attention on the crisis. An unprecedented attack on a gas plant in southern Algeria, resulting in the deaths of at least 37 foreigners, has raised the stakes further, prompting the British prime minister, David Cameron, to suggest that stability and security in northwest Africa will take years, if not decades, to restore.
Two weeks into its intervention, France claims it has met its initial objectives by forcing Islamist militias to retreat from central Malian towns that were within striking distance of the capital. The first contingents of African soldiers began to arrive this week, supplementing a force of 2,000 French troops who have been greeted like heroes in Bamako.
On the diplomatic front the French president, François Hollande, has received unanimous support from western allies.
Literally and figuratively, however, Hollande finds himself in unfamiliar territory. He came to power last year promising to quickly withdraw French troops from Afghanistan and bury “la Françafrique”, the opaque nexus that bound France, its military and business interests to friendly African leaders. Until this month, when the unelected, military-backed civilian government of Mali appealed to Paris for military help, Hollande insisted there would be no French boots on the ground in Mali.
So why change course? What has caused France to abandon the diplomatic route and embark on a risky mission in a remote desert far from home? Could Mali turn into Europe’s Afghanistan, as excited headlines have put it this week; a protracted and costly counterinsurgency mission that cannot end in victory?