French President François Hollande’s decision to intervene militarily in Mali marks a sharp reversal in strategy for France and leaves the country open to a prolonged conflict with a well-armed opponent willing to use terrorist tactics.
For months, Mr. Hollande refused to commit French forces to fight the growing rebellion in Mali, which includes groups linked to al-Qaeda. The Socialist President preferred a more low-key approach, well aware of the often fractured relationships France has with many of its former colonies in West Africa. He pushed for an African-led military solution in Mali with France providing only backup.
But when the rebels advanced within striking distance of the capital, Bamako, last week, Mr. Hollande said he had to act, fearing an al-Qaeda-controlled state at France’s North African back door. He sent more than 500 troops on Friday along with attack helicopters and fighter jets. On Tuesday, he said as many as 2,500 French troops will be deployed and indicated that the mission could last months.
For now the military action is winning strong support in France, Mr. Hollande has received a badly needed boost in popularity at home, and French flags are waving in the streets of Bamako. But how long will that last?
“These things have a due date and popularity is fickle,” said François Heisbourg, a defence expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “People actually have a high toleration of military missions if they are seen as just and which are seen as achievable.
“What the French will not tolerate,” he added, “is the impression of getting into an unachievable, open-ended mission. That’s Afghanistan.”
He and others say Mr. Hollande had little choice but to get involved militarily.
“If Bamako had fallen, he would have been severely criticized by the opposition in France,” said Dominique Moïsi , founder of the French Institute of International Relations. “So in a way he did what was expected of him.”
For France, the stakes are high. Roughly 6,000 French nationals live in Bamako and about 80,000 Malians live in France, with close family ties back home. France also gets most of the uranium that powers its many nuclear plants from mines in neighbouring Niger. And the same rebels France is now bombing are holding seven French hostages.
Officially France wants to stop the rebel advances long enough to handover the conflict to a trained African force, made up of about 3,300 soldiers from several countries. Mr. Hollande said France won’t leave until “Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory,” indicating a long-term commitment.
But Mali has all the potential of being a quagmire. It has been unstable for decades, battling a separatist movement in the north led by the Tuaregs, a largely nomadic people. That movement gained strength in the last two years when the Tuaregs were joined by two jihadist groups, including one linked to al-Qaeda.
Suddenly the separatist movement became a fight to impose radical Islam across all of Mali and the well-armed jihadist, funded largely by ransom payments from kidnappings and drug trafficking, started winning battles against the Malian army. Those defeats led to a military coup last year in Bamako that left Mali with virtually no government
The rebels operate across vast stretches of open desert and rely on a steady stream of weapons from sellers in Libya and elsewhere. Even if France can contain the rebellion, unifying the country again with no real government and a prolonged separatist movement in the Tuaregs will prove more difficult.
There are also questions over whether the African troops will be up to the job and concerns about the role of neighbouring countries like Algeria, which has given some support to the rebels and has had strained relations with France since its war of independence more than 50 years ago. Mr. Hollande visited Algeria last month to ease some of the tension, and for now the visit appears to be paying off, as Algeria has allowed French planes to use its airspace.
“It’s easy to arrive with Mirage aircraft and break up a column of Toyota pickups,” said French journalist and foreign affairs commentator Pierre Haski. “It’s more complicated to design a strategy to reunify the country, create stability, deal with these very mobile groups that are spread over a territory five times the size of France.”
Mali is not the same as the French mission under NATO auspices in Afghanistan, which Mr. Hollande is pushing to end quickly, said Rem Korteweg, a senior fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London.
“We have to look at the [region] as basically France’s backyard – at least that’s the way they tend to like to see it,” Mr. Korteweg said. “It’s very different from his approach to Afghanistan, because the interests are simply very different. The commercial interests are huge [in West Africa], especially if you look at the uranium mines.”
Mr. Heisbourg agreed and added that for now people in France understand the mission. “It’s not very difficult to explain to people that allowing the jiahdist to take over a country is not a great idea for their security,” he said. “The French feel very strongly about terrorism. And these are seriously bad guys.”