The French intervention in Mali follows recent territorial gains by the Islamist extremist group Ansar Dine which culminated in the capture of Konna1. The group had taken control of much of the north of the West African country (an area frequently referred to as being the size of France) and this was considered the extent of the group’s reach. The UN had called for an African led intervention just before Christmas2 and the French had been discussing a training mission in Mali a few months prior to that, though they had ruled out any action until September. However clearly the fast changing situation on the ground worried Paris enough that they felt action was needed (though it seems likely French forces were already prepared for this eventuality).
But is this intervention justified? Well one look at the litany of atrocities committed by Ansar Dine could well be enough to justify the action. From a strategic point of view the Al-Qaida linked group is certainly not an organisation the EU and neighbouring countries want in control of vast areas of West Africa, potentially providing recruitment, training and shelter for extremist elements. Although the interim government’s legitimacy has been called in to question because of the army’s coup in March 2012 it is still worth noting that the government asked France for military intervention. Some have asked, hinting at French hypocrisy, why France has intervened in Mali but not in the Democratic Republic of Congo which also recently called on France for military intervention to help in fighting the M23 rebels. Well I feel the comparison is unfair, the M23 rebels have demonstrated that by agreeing to a ceasefire and peace talks3, this is a highly unlikely outcome in Mali especially whilst Ansar Dine’s had been succeeding. This intervention seems to have galvanised Mali’s neighbours into action and on Saturday Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal all committed to send troops whilst the UK is supplying France with logistical support4.
Could this be a model for future European interventions? Whatever your particular view on this intervention it’s still worth examining its implementation. The French have managed to land a considerable military force (some hundreds) close to Konna. They quickly captured Konna and have halted and are even reversing Ansar Dine’s gains, though the situation is so fluid at the moment. With France’s strong military presence in West Africa their forces on the ground already had air support and logistics in place to carry out this intervention so it is perhaps not going to be the exact example for any future European interventions but there are several things in place in this instance that we should seek to replicate, in particular the regional and global support. Without this kind of support there is no hope of a long term solution, much less a viable exit strategy.
In this case I am in favour of the French intervention, as stated the nature of the Ansar Dine extremists (and the defeated Tuareg mercenaries who fled Libya after the defeat of Gaddafi) makes it very hard even for the most die-hard of apologists to defend, especially given their strength in the region. That said intervention isn’t always the answer and we need to try diplomacy when possible, hence the Common Foreign and Security Policy (you can’t have one without the other. But to dismiss intervention completely is just as extreme as to consistently insist on military intervention. This operation bares similarities to Sierra Leone and in some aspects Libya. Should Europe be drawn more and more into similar situations it will be very important to learn the lessons of these modern conflicts. The real test for France will be to avoid mission creep and put in place a feasible exit strategy as soon as possible.
By James Taylor.