France's Blind Mission in Mali
'Blind we walk till the unforeseen traps our feet'. A "blind mission", former French Prime Minister De Villepin has warned, falling on deaf ears in Paris more attuned to President Francois Hollande's confident promise of a short campaign to root out the Jihadists and restore order and rule of law in Mali.
What was he smoking, future historian poring over the present French gambit in civil war-torn West African nation twice the size of Afghanistan may ponder, for it is abundantly clear to any objective observer gazing his or her eyes at the vast theater of conflict in Mali that a small force structure consisting of several hundred French paratroopers accompanied by token contributions by neighboring countries does not suffice for this very tall order.
Mr. Hollande should savor the moment because he may be in this for the long haul that would turn bitter the sweet taste of initial advances melting in the inhospitable rugged terrain of Mali, home to a mix of ethnic and religious insurgents who are combat-experienced and know how to strike back -- as they already have by expanding the theater of conflict through their hostage-taking in Algeria, including 7 Americans, which has turned deadly leaving dozens of hostages dead Not only that, the lives of several French hostages previously taken by the Islamists is also in danger, one of whom, an intelligence officer posing as a journalist (!) has been killed in a failed rescue operation. Mr. Hollande has claimed the hostage tragedy confirms his intervention is "justified," yet someone like De Villepin may argue quite the contrary, it shows the perils of an ill-conceived action with wider and unintended side-effects.
Was there an alternative? Future historians may legitimately ask, in light of Hollande's insistence that it was either swift action, responding to the official request for support by "the legal government in Mali," or the fall of capital Bamako.
Hail to the liberator. The old colonial power coming to the rescue of its former colony from the clutch of evil Jihadists has new clothes and, indeed, sounds rather familiar, i.e., invoking the authority of UN and "framework of international law." Mr. Hollande, who was mocked during the presidential campaigns for his absolute innocence of foreign policy matters, pretends a quick learner by the ropes of office, untenable by foreign policy standards. Both he and his amicable foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, have assured the world that the military intervention is not a matter of months but rather "weeks," but then again there are only 52 weeks in a year. The chance of France and its allies overtaking the northern half of Mali and actually controlling it, in the absence of a skeletal Malian army, is as good as George W. Bush's chance was when he declared victory in the Iraq war -- that raged on for another solid eight years.
Unfair to compare Hollande to Bush? Only time will tell, although the mere calculation of balance of forces can shed much light on the nature of things to come, the mere fact that the multiple Islamist groups carving out zones of influence in northern Mali have had nearly a year to fortify their positions, dig tunnels, hide their cache of arms, and prepare for exactly such contingencies.
Now to return to the above-invoked question of whether or not there was an alternative to the French intervention, we may hypothetically wonder what would happen if the rebels overtook the capital and had to run a state? Would they do any worse than the present impotent, faction-ridden, post-coup government? The burden of state control may turn many a revolutionary into conservative statesmen, rather than simply using it as a launching pad for global terrorism, as the simplistic French pundits would have us believe. Let the rebels take over the burden of running water and electricity and a postal service in town, and they would be so preoccupied for a long time that foreign adventure would be the last thing on their mind.
Instead, what the French, counting on token logistical support of UK, US, Germany, and Canada, have unilaterally succeeded is to turn even more probable Mali's break-up and its descent into the vortex of an 'endless conflict'. That is unless, somehow, the ground forces are multiplied. Compared to other UN-sponsored forces, such as the one in Congo, Mali requires a force of no less than one hundred to one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers on the ground to secure the country, yet the combined western-African force (chiefly by Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), is presently less than five percent of that figure, relayed to this author by a veteran UN diplomat involved in UN peacekeeping operations, who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity. "This is assuming the conflict does not spread to neighboring countries," the UN diplomat adds.
And then there is the "sovereignty factor," that is, the possibility that as the French-led intervention outlives its initial reception, more and more patriotic Malians would join the ranks of rebels in a great nationalist cause -- to rid the country of the old colonial power and its surrogates. This could spell trouble in Bamako, which has a large deeply religious population.
Unable and unwilling to foresee such a distinct possibility, at the moment Hollande and his military chiefs are gong ho about delivering swift blows to the "terrorists" and reclaiming territory from their hands in north, thus minimizing the counter-offensive prowess of rebels who have seized more towns just as they have 'blended' with the population and or made 'tactical withdrawals' in others. In a word, the situation in Mali has all the markings of another Afghanistan-type quagmire, seeing how the mighty US superpower is planning an exit from Afghanistan after a decade of futile attempt to tame it.
Compared to Afghanistan, which has a history as a graveyard of empires, Mali has no immediate neighbor like Pakistan that would serve as a well-spring of support for the insurgents. Yet, this is compensated by a Sahel-wide terrain encompassing a whole region that is ripe for asymmetrical guerrilla warfare. This is no Libya with a centralized authority and a known head that would be decapitated, rather the variegated nature of insurgency in Mali suggests a multi-head python that is essentially immune to decapitation. In the end, Mr. Hollande's presidency may turn out to be the net casualty of his self-made adventure in Mali and he may be no more successful than Charles Gordon "Pasha" of Khartum, who fell before the forces of Sudan's Mahdi in 1885, firmly convinced of his invincibility. We shall soon see if today's Bamako is yesterday's Khartum and the huge tasks of state-building Mr. Hollande has undertaken a delusional 'mission impossible'?
A concluding word and that is, the price of western intervention in Mali may be paid in Syria, as the NATO's entanglement in West Africa may prove to be too much to be replicated in (the more heavily fortified) Syria. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi