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French soldiers walk past a hangar they are staying at the Malian army air base in Bamako January 14, 2013. France plans to increase its troops in Mali to 2,500 in the days ahead and is working to speed up the deployment of West African troops for a campaign against Islamist rebels, the government said on Monday.


Where is Mali?

It's in West Africa, at the crossroads between the harsh Sahara desert and the more fertile lands to the south. The northern half of the country is bleak and arid terrain, dotted with several oasis towns, including the fabled town of Timbuktu.

What is its geopolitical significance?

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Until recently, Mali seemed to have little geopolitical value. But its north has emerged as a haven for Islamist radicals who originally crossed the border from Algeria and then became a kidnapping threat in West Africa. One radical group, affiliated with al-Qaeda, became financially powerful from kidnappings and trafficking operations. The north was soon a stronghold for Islamist terrorists, triggering the concerns of the United States and several European countries. Two of the kidnapping victims were Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, abducted in Niger in December of 2008 and held hostage in northern Mali for 130 days by a group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

A year ago Mali seemed to be a peaceful model of democracy. How did it become a centre of radical Islamist control?

Much of the problem can be traced to the Libya war in 2011. After the defeat of Moammar Gadhafi, thousands of his African recruits went back to their home countries, including Mali. They brought a massive arsenal of heavy weapons, which provided new strength to the rebel movement in northern Mali, led by Tuareg separatists and Islamist radicals. In early 2012, the rebels launched a major offensive, and by April of 2012 they had captured northern Mali, routing the Malian army. After that, the Islamist fighters were able to push aside the Tuareg separatists, and the Islamists ended up in control of the major northern towns and cities.

For years, Western governments such as Canada had praised Mali as a model of African stability and democracy. But the events of last year revealed that Mali was much weaker and less democratic than it appeared. Last March, a group of Malian military officers launched a coup, toppling Mali's unpopular government. Later they formally handed back power to an interim government, but the military continued to wield behind-the-scenes power, and in December it flexed its muscle by forcing Mali's prime minister to resign.

The coup, combined with the rebel victories in the north, revealed that Mali's military and political structures were weak, unpopular, disorganized and corrupt. It was a perfect breeding ground for the Islamist radicals, who flourished in the north, exploiting the vacuum. The Islamists have imposed a harsh version of sharia law, amputating the hands of alleged thieves, forcing women to wear veils, banning music, and destroying the ancient shrines of revered saints.

Why did the French launch its attack?

Mali is a former French colony and there are 3,000 French citizens living there, plus thousands more living in neighbouring countries. France had been planning to support an African-led military intervention in Mali. Acutely aware of its postcolonial legacy of repeated interference in its former colonies, France wanted to allow West African nations and Mali's army to take the lead in the military campaign against the northern rebels, with approval from the United Nations and the African Union. But the African force was slow to deploy, and officials were predicting that the military campaign against the rebels would not begin until September or October.

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Then, last week, a large force of about 1,200 Islamist fighters made a dramatic push southward, capturing the town of Konna in central Mali and threatening to seize the strategic cities of Mopti and Sévaré, site of a key airport. Mali's army offered little resistance. France decided it could not wait for the African troop deployment. It launched a wave of air strikes, sent about 600 troops to Mali, ejected the rebels from Konna and bombed rebel positions in the north.

France is aware its intervention will raise the spectre of neo-colonial interference in Africa, but it decided that the Islamist radicals, who are already holding seven French hostages, could pose a threat to Europe if they are not stopped now.

Why is Canada interested?

Canada has a history of support for Mali, including development aid, military training, corporate investment and political support. Canada had perceived Mali as a bastion of African democracy, and it singled out Mali as a "country of focus" for Canadian aid in Africa. In recent years, Canada gave more than $100-million in development aid to Mali annually. It also contributed to U.S.-led counter-terrorism training programs for Mali's army. And Canadian mining companies were major investors in Mali. For all these reasons, the Harper government has wanted to support Mali against the rebels. Until Monday, it had refused to offer direct military support to Mali itself, but it was quietly planning to help train the army of neighbouring Niger, which is planning to join the intervention in Mali. On Monday, it pledged a Canadian military transport plane to help Mali for a week.

How is the U.S. involved?

The United States is planning to provide logistical help to France, likely including satellite imagery and intelligence sharing, plus military transport and perhaps drone surveillance.

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What about the U.K.?

Britain is worried about any attempt by al-Qaeda to establish a stronghold in Mali. "It would not be in our interests to allow a terrorist haven to develop in Northern Mali," Britain's Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, told the House of Commons on Monday. Britain says it will back France, but it is committing transport planes only and will not send soldiers.

Why can't African nations solve this on their own?

There has been a growing effort by the African Union and regional African groups to resolve crises without help from Europe or North America. In recent conflicts such as Liberia and Somalia, the peacemaking efforts on the ground have been led by African troops. A similar model was being attempted in Mali, but the rebel forces were too strong and aggressive to be deterred by African forces. Another key factor was the geography and terrain. Most West African armies lacked the capability of operating in the desert, and they lacked the air power that would be needed to back up any military campaign in northern Mali. Moreover, key regional powers such as Nigeria are bogged down with their own internal rebellions, and were unable to provide much immediate help to Mali.

Now that U.K. and France are involved, will this become a European war?

Not likely. While the European Union has supported France's action, it is only offering to provide training to West African soldiers to help them fight the rebels. Germany is shying away from any commitment, as are most other European countries.

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What is the end game – what will it need to say mission accomplished?

That is unclear and is the subject of great discussion in France. Officially, France came in to stop the rebel advancement on the capital of Bamako, stabilize the country and give Mali and African troops time to prepare for an assault on the north. But it is not clear how quickly those troops will be ready and just how long French forces will have to remain. It's also unclear when France can claim success and withdraw. Meanwhile, rebels and al-Qaeda groups have threatened to retaliate against French targets.


At a glance:

Population: 15.8 million, about 1.62 million of whom live in the capital of Bamako.

Religion: 90-per-cent Muslim.

Exports: No. 1 is cotton, followed by livestock and gold.

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Life expectancy: 53 years.

Literacy: Only 20 per cent of women can read and write.

Birth rate: Malian women on average have about six children each.

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