Mali: Low-Hanging Fruit for France


Mali: Low-Hanging Fruit for France

Jan 16th, 2013 3 min read

Commentary By

Morgan Lorraine Roach

Senior Research Fellow

Luke Coffey @LukeDCoffey

Director, Douglas & Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy

At a time when French President Francois Hollande has gained a reputation for dithering over domestic policy the recent French-led intervention in Mali and Friday's botched rescue operation in Somalia has presented a new type of Hollande -- one that behaves like a Commander in Chief. However, has Hollande bitten off more than he can chew?

A coalition of Islamist militants has occupied northern Mali for the better part of a year -- since a military coup overthrew democratically-elected President Amadou Toumani Touré; last March, leaving a power vacuum in the north. Since then, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), its offshoot, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Malian-led Ansar Dine have joined forces, consolidated power and enforced sharia law across their captured territory.

Last week, militants trekked south toward Mali's north-south demarcation line in Mopti -- 300 miles northeast of the capital city of Bamako. France, Mali's former colonial ruler and an advocate of military intervention in the north, responded by providing air support for Malian ground forces and deploying approximately 500 troops with reportedly 2,500 on the way.

Hollande has vowed to keep French forces in Mali "as long as necessary." This is a game changer.

French enthusiasm for intervening in Mali could reinforce a dangerous precedent. Assuming the lead in military operations in a former colonial territory downplays the responsibility Africans have for solving their own challenges. France did this during the 2011 election crisis in Côte d'Ivoire, too, providing military assistance to facilitate the government transition. While many Malians welcome France's support, Mali's regional partners may become less willing to provide significant resources, if they feel France will solve their problems.

Furthermore, by launching a military incursion, France has committed itself to a mission. Yet the decision appears to have been taken largely on impulse, based on little planning. In early 2011, France had a choice between involvement in Syria and involvement in Libya. It opted for the relatively easier operation in Libya. Again, France has chosen what appears to be a less risky Malian military intervention over a quagmire in Syria.

At face value the French are right to be concerned about the future of an Islamist-controlled Mali. The French have played a role there since 1880 when the region was known as French Sudan. Even after gaining independence in 1960, Mali continues to suffer from attempted coups, famine, and separatist movements.

The Qaddafi regime's collapse in Libya created a ripple effect across the region, affecting Mali directly. France's past in Mali, coupled with the advance of Islamic militants, made military intervention seem like the right decision at the right time for France. But will the French be able to see the mission through?

Should things go badly for France, Hollande has a lot at stake. It is believed that terrorism originating Mali could be aimed at France, whose citizens are regularly kidnapped by Islamist militants and Europe in general. While France's deployment will undoubtedly be exploited for recruitment by AQIM, and others, a perception of French defeat in Mali would embolden other terrorist groups in the region. Even worse, a botched French mission could drag other NATO allies into the conflict. France cannot afford to fail.

Consequently, the U.S. should be wary of France's military action. Hollande has asked America to contribute unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other surveillance resources. It is not confirmed that the U.S. has deployed those assets.

America has a finite amount of intelligence and surveillance resources to allocate around the world. The Administration must weigh French requests for military assets in Mali against needs for other American military priorities around the globe such as Iran, North Korea, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The U.S. commitment in Mali should be limited to intelligence sharing and some technical assistance. Furthermore NATO should not get involved. Such action would automatically draw the U.S. military into the conflict. France has led the way and has more at stake. Therefore, France should see the mission through.

Halting the advance of Islamist militants in Mali is not the same has defeating them. Now that France has committed itself to the crisis, Hollande will need to better define France's mission in Mali and outline how long French forces will remain there.

Contrary to President Hollande's insistence on staying in Mali until the job is done, his foreign minister Laurent Fabius recently stated that the campaign will conclude in "a matter of weeks." This inconsistency demonstrates Hollande's steadfastness might not be shared with everyone in Paris.

Morgan Roach studies and writes about Africa and the Middle East as research associate in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation. Luke Coffey is Heritage's Margaret Thatcher Fellow, focusing his work on defense and security matters including NATO and the European Union.

First appeared in The Huffington Post.