A French elite special operations soldier drives towards
the Malian capital of Bamako to meet Malian soldiers and
organise a counterattack against jihadist forces. France
would end its intervention in Mali only once stability had
returned to the West African country, French President
Francois Hollande said yesterday, raising the prospects of
a costly, drawn-out operation against al Qaeda-linked
rebels. Photo by Reuters.
''Those days are over,'' Frances President Francois
Hollande said last month, when asked if French forces would
intervene in the war between Islamist insurgents who have
seized the northern half of Mali and the Government in Bamako.
But the days in question weren't over for very long. Last
Friday, France sent a squadron of fighter-bombers to the West
African country to stop the Islamist fighters from taking the
''We are making air raids the whole time,'' French Defence
Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
''They are going on now. They will go on tonight. They will
go on tomorrow.''
About 550 French combat troops are on the ground already,
with up to 2500 more to follow. Contingents of soldiers from
the neighbouring countries of Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso,
Niger and Togo are scheduled to arrive as early as next week.
It has turned into a real war.
It has also turned into a Western-run war in a Muslim
country, despite the discouraging precedents of Afghanistan
and Iraq. The Government of Mali asked for French help, and
on Monday the United Nations Security Council unanimously
supported France's military intervention. The army of Mali,
such as it is, will theoretically be in charge of the war -
but everybody knows the Malian army is useless.
In fact, the presence of Mali's army at the front is usually
counterproductive, as it is brutal, militarily incompetent
and prone to panic flight. The other African armies are of
variable quality, but it is obviously French troops, and
especially French air power, that will decide the outcome of
the war. So has France bitten off more than it can chew? Is
this going to end up like Afghanistan and Iraq?
The supporters of the war prefer to compare it with last
year's Western military intervention in Libya, another French
initiative that was decided over one weekend. They like that
analogy better because the Libyan intervention ended
tolerably well, with the overthrow of the dictator, a
democratically elected government and no Western casualties.
But the differences between Libya and Mali are greater than
In Libya, the rebels were trying to rid the country of
Muammar Gaddafi, a loony, friendless dictator, and create a
democratic future. The decision to intervene was made in
Paris in only two hectic days, when it appeared that Mr
Gaddafi's mercenary troops were about to overrun Benghazi and
massacre the rebels. Nato served as the rebel air force, but
no Western troops fought on the ground. And it worked.
The West is supporting the Government, not the rebels, in
Mali. That Government, behind a flimsy civilian facade, is
controlled by the same thugs in uniform whose military coup
last March, just one month before the scheduled democratic
election, created the chaos that let the Islamist rebels
conquer the northern half of the country. The young officers
who now run the country are ignorant and violent, and having
them on your side is not an asset.
The Islamist rebels are fanatical, intolerant and violent,
but they are well armed (a lot of advanced infantry weapons
came on the market when Mr Gaddafi's regime collapsed) and
they appear to be well trained. They have almost no popular
support in 90%-Muslim Mali, whose version of Islam is much
more moderate, but they have terrified the population of the
north into submission or flight.
Until recently, the rebels seemed to be confined to Mali's
desert north, but last week they began to advance into
southern Mali, where nine-tenths of the country's 14 million
people live. The Malian army collapsed, and Western
intelligence sources estimated that the Islamists would
capture the capital, Bamako, within two days. That would
effectively give them control of the entire country.
Mali has long, unguarded borders with seven other African
countries, and it is only 3000km from France. So President
Hollande ordered immediate military intervention to stop the
Islamist advance, and we'll all worry about the long-term
consequences later. The next Western war against Islamist
extremists has already started, and the question is whether
it will end up like Afghanistan.
Nobody would like to know the answer to that more than the
French. Except, of course, the Malians.
- Gwynne Dyer is an independent London