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The French should be cautious in Mali

5th February 2013

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CC image courtesy of Magharebia, Flickr.

France’s mission in Mali “has been completed”. Or so has been announced by the French Defence Secretary Jean-Yves Le Drian. This statement came after a number of key cities, among them Timbuktu, were liberated by French forces as of Tuesday.

The French administration however would be advised not to make such suggestive statements of only semantic truth, when the situation in Mali bears so little semblance to political or military stability. They should also be cautious to avoid many of the mistakes made in another of its ex-colonies, Indochina, some of which it has already begun to pay the price for.

The first of these is the inadvertent arming of the opposition. When the United States began its combat role in the beleaguered Vietnam conflict of the early 1960s, they found themselves engaged with an enemy extensively armed with remnant French weaponry—long after the French had departed. This same dilemma is emerging now in Mali, only on a far more disastrous scale.

France being the only nation to have dropped a considerable tonnage of weaponry and ammunition into Libya to aid anti-Gaddafi rebels, it is an appropriate irony that now it is French forces that have to deal with those arms that have found their way to Mali. Among them is the Milan missile system—until recently the backbone of the French infantry’s anti-tank capability—as well as various shoulder-launched anti-aircraft defences (of 20,000 delivered to Libya, so far only a quarter have been accounted for). It is no exaggeration to say that in the wrong hands, these weapons could challenge the French advantage in air and armour support.

The second mistake—one made almost without exception by Western media—is the oversimplification of opposition forces in Mali. The same misunderstandings were made in Vietnam when the “Communists” were portrayed as a force of solidarity with uniform aims and objectives. Fifty or so years later it is the “Islamists” who threaten regional security. If it were not for the studious work of some alternative media outlets, we might never have known that of the seven prominent factions in Mali, only three are explicitly “Islamist”, and only four engaged in campaigns of violence.

The third and indeed greatest mistake, is the belief that liberating a few key cities marks anything but the beginning of this conflict; it will be the rural areas where insurgent forces persist. With the news that French forces will begin to pull back having pacified Timbuktu, it seems the task of pursuing this insurgency-in-flight to the desert north will be delegated to the Malian army, and the additional 7,700-strong African Union force.

An act of political expediency, perhaps? President Hollande’s decision to defer to Malian and African Union soldiers could be a disaster—there are already reports of Malian soldiers executing suspected insurgents and taking revenge on Tuareg peoples, the insurgent’s ethnic majority—but this decision is to his credit nonetheless. There is no telling how long the engagement in Mali could last, but it will likely be a protracted conflict. While the French military’s efforts have thus far been celebrated, it seems unlikely that the presence of an ex-colonial power will be endorsed indefinitely—especially so, once the daunting task of fighting the rural insurgency begins.

The sooner Western forces stop leading combat missions (the French have so far led every mission), and adopt the supportive, instructive role soon to be bolstered by the British, the better. With news from Jobs Minister, Michel Sapin of France’s “total bankruptcy”, and the omnipresent fear of “mission creep”, this morphing of roles will likely be hurriedly prioritised.

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