To those of us deeply skeptical of the deployment of Western military force in the developing world, the French intervention in Mali in recent days poses something of a dilemma. It appears to be legally and militarily justified, and enjoys strong local and regional support. Yet at the same time, it appears to be based on the same assumptions about Western air power that have proven so flawed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
French President François Hollande's decision to intervene came in response to an express invitation by the Malian government, and in support of the Malian armed forces' own efforts to recapture territory lost to the Islamists and other insurgents in 2012. Further, at the urging of that government, along with several African countries and African regional organizations, the UN Security Council has adopted two unanimous decisions that clearly authorize an international force to help the Malian government reassert control over its northern territories.
There seems to be widespread support for the French intervention, both at home and abroad. Many African countries have welcomed it; even Russian and China – so hostile to any possible military intervention to halt the bloodshed in Syria – have not challenged the French action.
Additionally, the French acted when it appeared that the Islamist groups Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had clearly taken charge and sidelined the Tuareg- and ethnic-based insurgency. Those insurgents can be viewed more clearly as waging a civil war, with its solution lying in local politics (and almost certainly not helped by foreign intervention). However, the Islamist groups (at least AQIM) have ambitions far beyond Mali, and far beyond what might be reasonably conceded through negotiations. AQIM is a clear threat to the sub-region and perhaps beyond. The case for challenging it militarily is a strong one.
The French action, therefore, is easily defended in legal, political and military terms. The UN resolutions envisage an African-led force, and link this "security" element to a "political" element that mandates efforts towards a solution to the many grievances of the northerners (which the Islamists exploited). That said, it is hard to begrudge the French jumping the gun on intervention, given the sudden push southwards by the Islamist insurgents. While the UN process imagined a last effort at political dialogue, that process would have been rendered redundant had the insurgents overrun the south and captured Bamako in the absence of the French intervention.
But even if the arguments for intervention are solid, what are its prospects for success? Can the French air force decisively shift the conflict in favour of the weak and obviously inadequate Malian army? Will the air bombardments hold off the insurgents until troops from other African countries arrive and bolster the Malian forces?
The statements from the French government sound confident, but we have heard this before. The intervention in Mali is reminiscent of the U.S. and NATO's decision to commit troops to support Afghanistan against the resumed Taliban insurgency in 2003-04. Few then questioned the decision to use force. At that time, we were told, a fledgling democracy was threatened by jihadists who had little or no local support; and the conventional wisdom was that we could not and should not negotiate with the Taliban. The easy defeat of Taliban forces in 2001-02, when they fled in the face of massive U.S. air attacks, convinced many that their renewed threat could be contained with a minimum commitment of NATO troops on the ground. How wrong that proved.
There are important differences between the situation in Mali and Afghanistan, to be sure. The Taliban have political aspirations within a defined territory, whereas AQIM's aims are far less containable. And in response to a reporter's questions about parallels with Afghanistan, French ministers have insisted that the commitment to Mali is not open-ended and will last only a few weeks.
It is remarkable that despite the evident failures of Western military force to achieve its objectives against an Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan, there is a continuing conviction that it can do so elsewhere. In seeking to destroy AQIM with air power, the French are in good company: This is precisely the strategy the U.S. is employing against the Taliban sheltering in Pakistan and against al-Qaeda-linked groups in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.
While there can be little doubt that it might achieve tactical success in killing specific and identified al-Qaeda or Taliban enemies, there is little evidence to show that it is eliminating the insurgent groups they lead. On the contrary, the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan appear stronger than ever – so confident, in fact, they now refuse Western requests to negotiate. And if in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing al-Qaeda is a spent force (as the U.S. is keen to emphasize), how is it that groups acting in al-Qaeda's name can seize half of Mali and, in the words of the French defense minister, "threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe."
One can sympathize with Mr. Hollande, taking the frantic call from the head of Mali's transitional government pleading for help. Given international support and the manifest threat, it would have been hard to stand aside, whatever misgivings he might have had. (And given his insistence on an early withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan, he must have some doubts).
The decision to go to war has its own dynamic, opening up new possibilities even as it forecloses others, eliminating apparent threats but perhaps fomenting new ones. Nothing is certain. If the French action is indeed short-lived and limited, and if it succeeds in halting the Islamist insurgency in the north (thereby buying time for the planned combination of a security and political strategy to win back Tuareg support), then it will no doubt be judged a success. One can argue convincingly that there was no reasonable alternative but for France to act, and for others to support that decision. That said, the case remains that the record to date of the West's efforts to eliminate Islamist insurgency through military means is not promising.
David Petrasek is interim director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa, and associate professor of Public and International Affairs. A version of this article appears on the CIPS blog.