With French and African forces bearing down on Islamist rebels, the question arises – is Europe lying to itself about their commitment to Mali?
As Barack Obama declared that “a decade of war is now ending,” French warplanes hit the positions of Islamists who didn’t get the memo.
The re-taking of two Malian towns signified immediate progress for French forces fighting to prevent a Somalia-like failed state in what foreign policy experts call “the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world.” The instability of Mali predates NATO’s Libyan intervention but was significantly exasperated by the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Malian fighters, both for and against Gaddafi, flowed into Libya as fast as arms flowed back into Mali once the major fighting was done (to say nothing of the present violence in Libya).
The French intervention has gained tepid material support from the U.S. and NATO allies (with onerous financial strings attached), showcasing once again the limitations of “leading from behind” – including placing a far from resolute President at the heart of the fighting in the shape of French President François Hollande:
It was supposed to be a quick and dramatic blow that would send the Islamists scurrying back to their hide-outs in northern Mali, buying time for the deployment of an African force to stabilize the situation. Instead it is turning into what looks like a complex and drawn-out military and diplomatic operation that Mr. Hollande’s critics are already calling a desert version of a quagmire, like Vietnam or Afghanistan…
Mr. Hollande, who has a reputation for indecisiveness, has certainly taken on a difficult task. The French are fighting to preserve the integrity of a country that is divided in half, of a state that is broken. They are fighting for the survival of an interim government with no democratic legitimacy that took power in the aftermath of a coup.
Hollande has continued the post-WWII French tradition of an obtuse foreign policy. Despite saying almost nothing on foreign policy during his campaign, Hollande has at once suggested that France will leave Afghanistan, NATO and yet invade Syria. It’s little wonder than that France’s stated position on Mali is equally confusing. An objective of “total conquest” (a charged word when fighting Muslims; or so we’re told when a Republican President says something similar) sounds aggressive and determined. Instead, it represents something entirely different:
Camille Grand, a defense expert and director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said the French objective is “to return to the status quo ante, where those Islamist groups are cornered in the gray zones on the borders, with limited ability to act and not controlling population centers, where it is difficult for them to make raids or take hostages.”
Those goals, he said, are “definitely something that makes sense from a military standpoint. But “if the ultimate objective is to eradicate the presence of radical Islam in the Sahel,” he warned, “it probably won’t happen; it’s a bridge too far for anyone.”
The French offensive is designed to push the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) back to their southern stronghold – a sort of Malian 38th parallel. Considering there might be as few as 3,000 Tuareg fighters for the MNLA, the French objective might be quickly reached. What remains less likely is that a French victory along these lines will accomplish anything. The MNLA, or an offshoot, will likely just regroup and march north again unless Malian government soliders, which have significantly outnumbered the MNLA, can stand their ground. Talk of French or NATO training of Malian troops sounds promising, but after a decade-plus of a similar commitment to Afghanistan, the historical results of such training don’t look promising.
So we’re left with Libya – the sequel. Neither Europe, or NATO, or the U.S. have the stomach to resolve the conflict nor stand aside and watch as Mali falls and al-Qaeda gains a new forward base for attacks abroad. The moves of the French and others thus far provide limited political or military risk, but also limited to nonexistent gains. Again, like Libya, if Europe or the West want their preferred side to prevail, they’ll likely have to do most of the fighting themselves. Considering the nomadic Tuareg opposition (literally translated into “abandoned by God”), are solid guerilla tacticians, a long-term French ground war will inevitably bring French casualties. The intervention is politically popular in France – for now. What happens if that changes? The outlook isn’t good when the man in charge is known as “Flanby,” a type of flan dessert.
The lack of U.S. leadership in the matter isn’t going unnoticed in Europe either. In the choice of victory or defeat in Mali, the American choice seems to be to vote ‘present.’