With France’s ignominious track record for disastrous military adventures on the African continent – the 1956 Suez Crisis comes most to mind – one would think that the former colonial power would have learned some prudence by now.
But alas, no. The French charged into Mali last week with hundreds of troops, fighter jets and attack helicopters in a rash move that casts serious questions of legality and military viability. French state-of-the-art Rafale fighter jets have been bombing at least six towns across the north and central belt of the remote Sahel desert country for five consecutive days and counting. With hundreds more French troops on the way and French tanks arriving from neighbouring Cote D’Ivoire, President Francois Hollande is in danger of leading his country into a fatal no-man’s land…
Hours after the French mobilisation last Friday allegedly to save the Francophile administration in Mali from being over-run by rebels and Islamist militias from the northern territory, the Paris government was hailing the mission a success. “We have halted the terrorists,” declared French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, while thanking British and American allies for supportive endorsements of his country’s action.
However, over the weekend the situation has turned decidedly pear-shaped for gung-ho France. A French helicopter pilot has been killed and there are unconfirmed reports of several civilian deaths from the air strikes. Some 230,000 civilians have been displaced in the impoverished and drought-stricken country of 16 million.
More worrying for the French authorities, the separatist northern rebels seem to have quickly recovered from the initial aerial onslaught. While the French air force are still trying to help the Malian army retake the central town of Konna, which fell into rebel hands last Thursday – sparking France’s intervention – insurgents have outflanked their enemy and have pushed further south towards the capital Bamako. Earlier this week, rebels captured the town of Diabaly – only 350 kilometers from Bamako – and are threatening to penetrate well beyond the de facto north-south frontier that came into effect last April, when the Tuareg rebels and Islamists belonging to Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) declared autonomy in the northern territory.
While the French are busy bombing towns in the centre and far north such as Douentza, Gao and Kidal – said to be rebel strongholds – the insurgents have moved behind French and Malian forces located in central Mopti. Even at this early stage, the ostensible French objective of stablising the country has led to greater instability, and has served to expose the Bamako government as weaker than ever before.
Also worrying for Hollande is the fate of nine French hostages; eight in Mali and another believed to be still alive in Somalia. Last Friday within hours of the French intervention in Mali, its special forces botched a daring raid to rescue the hostage being held in the eastern Horn of Africa by the Islamist group, Al Shabab, in Somalia. Two French soldiers were officially killed in a fire-fight with the hostage takers. Local people say that eight civilians were also killed, allegedly by some 50 French marines when they first landed near Bulo Marer, south of the capital Mogadishu. Locals also claim that more French personnel were fatally wounded than the Paris government is acknowledging at this stage. Al Shabab militants have since posted images of one of the dead French soldiers on the internet with taunting messages – “Was it worth it?” – to President Hollande.
The fate of the French captive in Somalia, Denis Allex, an intelligence officer, remains in the balance, with the French authorities bracing for more macabre and embarrassing news of his whereabouts in the coming days.
Islamist leader in Mali, Omar Ould Hamaha, told French media that Hollande’s government has “opened the gates of hell” and has fallen into “a trap worse than Afghanistan”.
Another Islamist leader, Abou Dardar, of the MUJWA, gave this grim warning in the light of the French actions. “France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France. Everywhere. In Bamako, in Africa, in Europe.”
With some 30,000 French civilian expatriates residing in its former African colonies, these threats of reprisals are grave cause for concern. The French authorities seem to have recklessly jettisoned the safety of these hostages and expatriates with their macho display of militarism.
And with events rapidly turning awry for the French in two far-flung African countries, one wonders how Francois Hollande will extricate his country from the unfolding mess?
For several months now, France has been pushing for an international intervention in Mali to quash the rebellious northern territory. Hollande has been portraying Mali as a haven for Islamic fundamentalists, which allegedly poses an imminent security threat as a launch pad for terrorism in Europe. This alarming view has been echoed by the American and British governments. At the end of last year, the head of US AFRICOM General Carter Ham characterised Mali as the new global base for Al Qaeda. Ironically, while the Western allies have been talking up the threat of Islamic terrorism in Mali, these same powers are in cahoots with similar Jihadi militants trying to overthrow the government of President Bashar Al Assad in Syria.
There is more than a suspicion that the alleged Islamist threat in Mali is being inflated by France and its Western allies as a cynical pretext for yet another military campaign in Africa in pursuit of what are naked imperialist interests. Mali, and the West Africa region generally, is endowed with superabundant natural resources of oil, gas, minerals, ores, metals and agriculture – resources that remain mainly untapped and coveted by Western capital.
Another irony is that the flow of weapons and militants into northern Mali can be linked directly to NATO’s assisted overthrow of the government in Libya at the end of 2011. Following the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, many of the militants that were supporting his regime returned to their nomadic bases in northern Mali, taking their weapons with them. The security threat in the region, such as it is, is therefore a by-product of NATO’s intervention in Libya, which the French in particular were ardent proponents of.
Nevertheless, those contradictions aside, the Western powers have been urging the 15-nation West African bloc, ECOWAS, to mount a military mission into Mali to shore up the shaky government in Bamako and to crush the northern separatists. Last month, at the behest of Paris, Washington and London, the United Nations Security Council finally gave qualified approval for the African-led mission into Mali. However, that intervention was not anticipated until much later this year, in September at the earliest, pending the acquisition of funding, training and logistics for the nascent and largely untested ECOWAS force.
A week before the UNSC vote in December, the Malian interim Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was bounced out of office by Mali’s military junta, led by the American-trained Captain Amadou Sanogo Western diplomats then got nervous, including the Americans. They began emphasising the need for cautious planning by the African intervention force in coordination with their Malian military counterparts. Notably, by contrast, the French threw caution to the wind and became singularly even more gung-ho. Philippe Lalliot, a French foreign ministry spokesman, said then: “These developments underline the need for the rapid deployment of an African stabilisation force.”
And it was largely due to French soliciting that the UNSC gave the go-ahead for the African-led ECOWAS mission into Mali on 20 December.
What is now clear is that French ambitions for intervention in Mali have jumped the gun. Not willing to wait for the combined African force to mount its operations later this year, as most diplomats were assuming, the French have decided to go it alone.
Washington and London have both publicly expressed support for the latest French intervention in Mali, even though it seems that these allies were taken by surprise by the French initiative. In retrospect, there seems to have been a subterranean clash of intentions between the Western powers with regard to Mali. Washington, which has spent some $600 million over several years training the Malian army and developing close links, appears to have shared the Malian military’s more gradualist approach to implementing a counterinsurgency strategy in the north. The deposed premier Diarra, who was aligned with Paris, wanted a more immediate military solution in combination with the ECOWAS force – which also seems to have been the French preferred option.
The question is: was the removal of Diarra last month an American-inspired spanner in the wheel for hasty French military ambitions in Mali?
France has evidently pushed ahead with the military agenda in Mali, and while the Americans appear supportive for now, at least in public, one wonders if there are not concerns in Washington and London that Paris has impetuously broken ranks and created an incendiary situation in Mali. Not only in Mali, but in Somalia and elsewhere across Africa. The closure of borders by neighbouring Algeria this week is indicative of apprehensions that the French may have unleashed instability across the Sahel.
A headline on France 24 mid-week may reveal more than was intended: “France seeks allies in Mali operation”. For a start, the word “operation” is something of a trite euphemism. A more accurate term would be “aggression”. The UNSC approval for the African-led ECOWAS force at the end of last month was not the final green light. The force was obliged to subsequently clear its plans in Mali with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon once they had been assembled – most likely taking several more months. So, the French intervention in Mali does not strictly have a UNSC mandate and therefore its legality is disputable. On the face of it, France has acted unilaterally and without authorisation, that is, illegally. As if by way of an afterthought, the UNSC has this week unanimously endorsed the French action, but the fact remains that France had already embarked on a military attack on a sovereign country, without any legal mandate. Only a few months ago, Francois Hollande was talking up a “reset” in French relations with its former colonies in Africa, in an attempt to convey a new hands-off approach by the old colonial master. Hollande also vowed back in October that with regard to Mali there would be “no French military boots on the ground”. That supposed reset in French foreign relations now stands as a cynical shambles.
Despite the initial crowing of military success at halting the terrorists in Mali, the French government seems to be back-pedalling. French Foreign Minister Fabius has now taken to emphasising that his country’s military involvement was only ever meant to be “a short term” contingency. He said it would be “over in a matter of weeks” and was aimed at paving the way for the African-led military mission of the ECOWAS bloc. Sure enough, troops from neighbouring Nigeria, Senegal, Benin, Niger and Togo are due to start arriving in Mali over the coming days and weeks. This deployment is months ahead of what was envisaged at the UN.
Thus it would seem that the French, having gauchely jumped into Mali, are now set to hand over the problem of containing the ensuing instability to Africans.
But the French will find that they cannot simply wash their hands of the imbroglio. The large-scale military build-up by France has inevitably committed Paris to a long-term station, even if it tries to resort to a background role. Already the initial French troop deployment of 550 last week is set to multiply to 2,500 only a few days later. President Hollande is saying that the France will stay in Mali until the country is “safe and has a stable government”.
There is also a question of the military viability of the planned African-led mission, which is being lined up to take over from the French. Some 3,500 ECOWAS troops are to join a ramshackle Malian army of 6,000. The knitting together of these disparate units is untested and dubious. The Malian military brass has expressed discontent about the prospect of foreign forces interfering in its territory – albeit under the remit of neighbourly cooperation. It should be noted too that the ECOWAS mission is to be headed up by Nigeria, whose military has a notorious record of indiscipline and violations among its own population.
Assuming the military coalition can find a modicum of collaboration, the next major problem is how it will engage the northern guerrilla. Mali’s upper territory covers an area the size of France or the state of Texas. Yet the population is less than two million. It is an unforgiving barren terrain of endless Saharan desert that the nomadic people and their fighters have mastered over many centuries. Hunting down guerrilla in this vast emptiness is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack – a task that will not be lessened even with the promised French, American and British surveillance drones.
Added to this challenge are the facts that the military from the ECOWAS countries have previously only had light peacekeeping experience in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Now, they are expected to take on battle-hardened and well-armed guerrilla, which the French have already found out to their cost this past week. Plus, the dark-skinned ECOWAS forces from Sub-Saharan African countries are going into unknown territory to confront light-skinned Tuareg and Berbers residing among an indistinguishable civilian population. That’s tantamount to putting a target sign on the backs of these neophyte ECOWAS soldiers. And although the French and their NATO allies probably were counting on taking a backseat planning role in Mali’s counterinsurgency war, these powers are at risk of being dragged into a frontline deployment in a bid to salvage the inevitable military losses. Assuming, of course, that the Americans and British imperialist “friends” don’t leave the French high and dry in the Malian desert. Echoes of Suez there.
All in all, there is a doomed sense of deju vu in Mali. Another French military disaster in Africa looms. Plus ca change…
French pain is US gain. France’s downfall in Mali is chance for US to increase African sphere of influence
Is the United States preparing to let the French hang out to dry in their dramatic military intervention in Mali? In the cynical game of big power rivalry, a setback for the old colonial patron in West Africa would bring handsome gains for the US in extending its growing sphere of influence in this strategic and vital resource-rich region.
So far, Washington has offered words of support and vague pledges of helping with “logistics and surveillance” as French forces find their plans tough going to rout an array of rebels and Islamists in the West African country.
But surprisingly, the US is keeping its military powder dry – more one week into the French campaign, dubbed Operation Serval. The outgoing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has pointedly refused to confirm whether American troops would be deployed in Mali, and Washington spokesmen say they are merely “weighing their options”.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Friday that there is a “split between the White House and Pentagon” over the perceived “danger of Islamist militants in West Africa”, with many in the Obama administration reckoning that they do not “present enough of a risk to US allies or interests to warrant a military response”.
The uncharacteristic American coyness over a military response must be giving French President Francois Hollande cause for concern that his country may be left carrying the can in the Malian conflict – a conflict which is threatening to escalate across the vast Sahel-Saharan region, as the attack on Algeria’s gas installation and deadly hostage siege this week points up. Islamist militia spokesmen have warned that France “has opened the gates of hell” and that more such attacks on Western civilians are on the way. With some 30,000 French civilian expatriates living in its former West and North African colonies and being home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, France is most at risk from such reprisals.
French media reports allude to the worry among its politicians that France could end up playing a deadly game of solitaire in the desert, without crucial material support from its Western allies and Washington in particular. ‘France seeks allies in Mali’ and ‘France feels alone on the battlefield’ read two telling headlines on its national broadcaster France 24, after the weekend aerial bombing raids failed to quell the Malian enemy, forcing the French to dramatically scale up its troop deployment on the ground. The arrival of 40 Togolese troops from Mali’s southern neighbour as part of an advance by some 3,500 soldiers from the West African ECOWAS bloc will hardly ease French misgivings.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who last weekend was making rather gung-ho statements about “defeating terrorists”, seems to be now casting around for other European Union nations to give his country a dig-out in Mali.
Disturbingly for the French, Washington seems to have discovered legalistic qualms about military intervention in Mali. Asked about possible American deployment to aid the French and Malian army, Washington spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “We are precluded under the counter-coup restrictions from funding a military that has been involved in a coup until democracy has been restored.” This was a reference to the coup that the Malian military had carried out last March, which boomeranged by reigniting a long-smoldering separatist revolt in the country’s northern territory by Tuareg rebels along with two other Islamist groups. The last two, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, are believed to be linked to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) – the group which is said to be involved in the attack on the gas plant in eastern Algeria.
But this apparent American rectitude for legal probity does not seem convincing, given Washington’s replete record of reckless military interventions and support for despotic juntas over many decades in many countries, including on the African continent.
Another seeming about-turn in official US thinking was conveyed in a report in the New York Times this week with the headline: ‘US sees hazy threat from Mali militants’. The paper stated: “Officials in Washington still only have an impressionistic understanding of the militant groups that have established a safe haven in Mali, and they are divided about whether some of these groups pose a threat to the United States.” The Times even quoted the head of US AFRICOM, General Carter Ham, who was speaking after the French intervention. Asked if the Islamist groups in Mali presented an imminent danger to the US, the General curtly replied: “Probably not”.
Hold on a minute. Only last month, Carter Ham was telling the Times that Mali had become the new global base for Al Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups. In that report, headlined ‘American Commander Details Al Qaeda’s Strength in Mali’, Carter Ham gave this alarming assessment:
“Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa is operating terrorist training camps in northern Mali and providing arms, explosives and financing to a militant Islamist organization in northern Nigeria… The affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has used the momentum gained since seizing control of the northern part of the impoverished country in March to increase recruiting across sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Europe.”
The Times described General Ham’s assessment as “the most detailed and sobering American military analysis so far of the consequences of the Qaeda affiliate and associated extremist groups seizing the northern part of Mali.” Ham concluded by saying: “There is a compelling need for the international community, led by Africans, to address that”.
Bear in mind, too, that the Pentagon has spent some $600 million over the past 10 years developing close links with the national militaries in West and North Africa, including Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Algeria. One of the biggest CIA bases in Africa is believed to be located in Algeria on Mali’s northern border, which flies surveillance drones over the region. Since 2002, the US has been running counterinsurgency programs in Mali and has close ties with that country’s army. The coup leader last March, Captain Amadou Sanogo, has undergone extensive military training between 2004 and 2010 at the US Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, and other US facilities in Arizona, Georgia and Texas.
Are we to believe that with this level of US military presence and intelligence in the Sahel and Sahara that Washington officials are now only seeing a “hazy threat” in Mali and latterly playing down the risk as “not imminent”?
Admittedly, following this week’s disastrous hostage rescue in Algeria where several American workers are feared dead, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Panetta both beefed up their language. Speaking while in Britain on Friday, Panetta said Washington would respond aggressively. “Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere,” he said. “Those who would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to hide.”
However, apart from the latest unspecified offer of lending C-17 troop-carrying cargo planes to France, the US military response to events in Mali appears conspicuously hesitant.
The LA Times reports:
“The Pentagon is planning to begin ferrying additional French troops and equipment to Mali in coming days aboard US Air Force C-17 cargo jets, according to Air Force Major Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman… But the administration has so far balked at a French request for tanker aircraft to provide in-air refueling of French fighter jets because the White House does not yet want to get directly involved in supporting French combat operations, officials said.”
So, what is going on here? Well, in the no-love-lost world of imperialist rivalry, perhaps Washington is seeing an opportunity to extend its already growing sphere of influence in a resource-rich African region. The old colonial master France appears to have acted impetuously by ploughing into Mali with guns blazing. The rash act by Paris last week seemed to have genuinely caught Washington by surprise. But maybe the Americans are thinking that is no bad thing now. If this campaign ends ruefully for France – and the way things are turning pear-shaped, the outlook does not bode well – then the United States will be in a position to step in to assert its influence in a region noted for abundant reserves of oil, gas, metals and ores. From a cynical point of view, the US may well let France get bogged down in the desert and take a fatal hit to its historic role in Africa. French pain is US gain…
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