Hollande's war aims remain unclear


ANALYSIS:A foreign military intervention in Mali may not have come as much of a surprise – the idea had gathered irresistible diplomatic momentum over recent months – but few expected it to happen quite like this.

In December, after a long campaign by France and west African states, the UN Security Council approved military action against Islamist militants who had taken control of the vast deserts of northern Mali.

The crisis had been building since last March, when Malian soldiers toppled the country’s president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize more than half the country. Islamist militias, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) – which had been in northern Mali with tacit agreement from the Tuareg nomads for years – hijacked the revolt and took control of an area about eight times larger than Ireland.

Reports soon emerged from northern Mali of militias imposing Sharia law, carrying out floggings and executions, and destroying shrines in the holy city of Timbuktu. Mali’s vital tourism industry collapsed, instability spread across the region and fears grew that the country could become a base for terrorist groups targeting Europe.

Diplomatic divisions

Diplomatic efforts to agree an intervention strategy had intensified in recent months, culminating in December’s UN resolution clearing the way for action.

But with serious divisions remaining on the scale, timing and make-up of an intervention force, a consensus had formed that a deployment would not happen before the autumn. A 3,000-strong force would be led by Mali’s neighbours, acting under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). France, the US and other western powers would offer funds, intelligence and logistical back-up, but would not fight themselves.

Hollande’s decision

So what changed? The spark for French president François Hollande’s decision to break with those plans and intervene directly in France’s former colony was an unexpected southward advance by the militants last week.

On Thursday, the rebels captured the central town of Konna, bringing them to within striking distance of Mopti, a strategically important town considered the gateway to southern Mali. Mopti’s hinterland is home to a military base and an airport, and the town is just 460km (286 miles) from Mali’s capital, Bamako – a major regional hub with a population of two million, including 6,000 French citizens.

With Bamako threatened and the Malian army melting away, Hollande received a direct appeal for help from Mali’s president. To have rejected that call with Bamako under threat, Hollande presumably concluded, would have been an even more dangerous risk than the one he has taken.

Literally and figuratively, Hollande now finds himself in unfamiliar territory. The president belongs, broadly speaking, to the non-interventionist left tradition in France.

Hollande won election with a pledge to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan sooner than Nicolas Sarkozy would, and has made much of his promise to bury “la Françafrique” – the opaque nexus that bound France, its military and business interests to friendly African leaders. Until last week, he insisted there would be no French boots on the ground in Mali.

The road ahead is fraught with uncertainty. France says it has already achieved its first goal by stopping the militants’ advance. Its next step is to enlist help from other significant players. The US and Britain have already signalled their support, and west African states have pledged to send their soldiers.

But many concerns remain. By intervening, Hollande has defied threats by Aqim to kill a number of French hostages. There is also the threat of an attack in France, where eight people were killed during a wave of bombings of the Paris Metro in 1995 by Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, a guerrilla Islamist movement from which Aqim traces some of its lineage.

Unanswered questions

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question of all is this: What are France’s war aims in Mali? In a brief, solemn televised address on Friday night, Hollande said the operation would continue “as long as necessary”.

Will French troops withdraw once the rebel column has been pushed back? Does Paris hope to force the militants out of Mali altogether – a prospect that would alarm Algeria, Niger and Mauritania, which share long, porous borders with Mali – or merely from population centres?

The decision to go in appears to have taken hours. Figuring out how to avoid a protracted war in the desert may well take longer.