The Crisis in Mali: Will French Air Strikes Stop the Islamist Advance?

The de facto al-Qaeda state in northern Mali surprised the world by moving forces toward the capital Bamako. Now France and its African allies have been galvanized into action. But will it be sufficient?

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Romaric Hien / AFP / Getty Images

Fighters of the Islamic group Ansar Dine stand guard at the Kidal Airport in northern Mali on Aug. 7, 2012

After ignoring it for the best part of a year, the world has suddenly woken up to the crisis in Mali — and its considered response seems to be: panic. On Jan. 9, the Islamist forces that captured northern Mali last year resumed their advance south and the next day took a small town about 700 km from the capital, Bamako. It’s not known whether the Islamists were attempting to go all the way to Bamako and take the entire country. Until now, they seem to have been content to retain the north, where most of the Malian elements in their ranks are from. But the reaction to the limited Islamist push has been dramatic. Mali’s government begged France to intervene. The Beninese chairman of the African Union demanded that NATO act. Even the Canadian Prime Minister urged international action. In response, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session Jan. 10 to pass a resolution calling for the “swift deployment” of an international intervention force.

Then on Jan. 11 French French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed reports from the ground that France had carried out at least one air strike against the Islamists, though he gave no details. Earlier in the day, eyewitness reports from the ground indicated a limited number of European soldiers, perhaps 50 men in all, had arrived in the area. The intervention came just as President François Hollande announced that French troops had joined Mali’s routed army in a counteroffensive against Islamist militias. Diplomats privately confirmed that the campaign also involved troops from Senegal and Nigeria. “French armed forces this afternoon provided support to Malian troops to fight against these terrorist elements,” Hollande said, noting the French intervention would last “as long as necessary” — and adding that the move was also made to protect 6,000 French citizens in the West African country. “The terrorists should know that France will always be there when what’s at stake is … the right of a people [those of Mali] … to live in freedom and democracy.”

(MORE: Mali’s Crisis: Is the Plan for Western Intervention ‘Crap’?)

Though his words and actions might bring to mind an America of more than a decade ago — and a U.S. Administration that France implacably opposed — Hollande is at least right to fear the threat from Mali. The chaos began at the start of 2012 when an alliance of Islamist and ethnic Tuareg insurgents launched a rebellion in the north of the country complaining, as the Tuaregs often do, of marginalization. The situation was aggravated in March when the Malian army mutinied and the Islamists-Tuaregs used the confusion to take the entire north in days, including the ancient city of Timbuktu. Then, in June and July, the Islamists turned on the Tuaregs, kicked them out and imposed Shari’a law. Since then the Islamists have ruled the north alone, creating a de facto al-Qaeda state three hours’ flight south of Europe.

At first, Europe and Africa were slow to respond to the new danger. By the end of last year, however, France had become an aggressive proponent of international intervention. Paris has two reasons for being concerned. First, history. There is still a lingering colonial attitude in Paris that France is primus inter pares among foreign players in the region: West Africa is part of la francophonie — the French-speaking world — and France demands and assumes the role of lead international player there. Second, and not unrelated, there is a (probably well-founded) fear in France that a radical Islamist Mali threatens France most of all, since most of the Islamists are French speakers and many have relatives in France. (Intelligence sources in Paris have told TIME that they’ve identified aspiring jihadis leaving France for northern Mali to train and fight.) Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the three groups that make up the Malian Islamist alliance and which provides much of the leadership, has also designated France — the representative of Western power in the region — as a prime target for attack.

But while everyone had agreed on the need for action, no one wanted to be the one to actually do it. The Islamists have made tens of millions of dollars from ransoming Western hostages and cocaine smuggling and spent much of it on acquiring large parts of Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenal, brought into Mali by Tuareg troops who fought for the former Libyan dictator.

Facing off against them is a Malian army that is demoralized, rarely paid, sometimes barely fed, and poorly armed. Backstopping it in any fight under long-discussed plans were also meant to be Mali’s West African neighbors, represented by the West African regional grouping, ECOWAS. But divided, dysfunctional and with mostly similarly ragged armies at its disposal, ECOWAS has so far produced little in the way of solid troop commitments.

(MORE: Mali’s Endless Crisis: Army Soldiers Force Out Prime Minister)

These uncomfortable realities made an earlier U.N.-French plan — in which a West African force of 3,000 would fight the Islamists, while French and U.S. trainers would assist the Malian army in doing the same — “crap,” in the delicate leaked words of the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice. Indeed, the notion that an African intervention force had remained an idea rather than a reality was recognized in the U.N.’s initial resolution in favor of military action in Mali, passed on Dec. 20, which clarified that any force was unlikely to deploy until September. Hollande’s description of that earlier resolution as a game changer seemed emptier still when considered against the Islamists’ holding of at least seven French hostages — specifically, as one Islamist commander told TIME last year, to safeguard against any French action. And if war was a poor prospect, peace talks weren’t a great option either. The last round didn’t even include the Islamists, broke up in December without any resolution and was in any case hosted by Burkina Faso, whose security services have long been suspected of benefiting commercially from Islamist kidnappings.

The French intervention is a tacit admission that Rice was right: a new plan, and a whole new sense of dynamism, was needed. More practically, it was also a recognition that the Malian army would offer little resistance if the Islamists pushed farther south toward Bamako. It remains unclear how extensive the French action will be, though, crucially, the requisite protocols for consensual Western intervention have now been observed. Since Iraq, NATO and the West now wait to be asked to intervene, rather than taking unilateral action; that appears to have happened — at least informally — with Mali’s and the A.U.’s plea for action. Hollande also made a point of noting that the deployment of French forces took place “within the framework of international law.”

But if Mali and the A.U. might prefer to rely on the West, the West — mindful of how interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq turned out and keen for Africa to find solutions to its own problems, even if it is the West that ends up footing the bill — remains reluctant to shoulder all the burden in Mali. The war talk at the U.N. and in Paris shouldn’t obscure the reality that the world isn’t done yet playing pass-the-buck on Mali. Should that vacuum continue, the Islamists can only consolidate their grip.

With reporting by Bruce Crumley/Paris
MORE: Africa Rising

26 comments
where44
where44

Imagine Russia in 2050! According to Paul Goble, a specialist on ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation has predicted that within the next several decades, Russia will become a Muslim majority state. There is another bad news with fast decline in country’s population. This has already become a headache for Russian politicians and policy makers. President Vladimir Putin has called already for Russian women to have more children, because demographers predict that Russia’s population will fall from 143 million to 100 million by 2050. This situation has alarmed Russians as well Western leaders, more so because analysts estimate that Muslims will comprise the majority group in Russia’s population in few decades.

The Muslim population growth rate since 1989 is between 40 and 50 percent, depending on ethnic groups. Today Russia has about 8,000 mosques while 15 years there were only 300 mosques. According to statistics, by the end of 2015, number of mosques in Russia will cross 25,000. These statistics are frightening for many ethnic Russians who associate Islam with the Kremlin’s war against insurgents in Chechnya. Russia is shrinking. Alarmed by the situation, Putin has offered incentives to women who will have more children.


PaulVDaviesJunior
PaulVDaviesJunior

It is not threat  if the Russia has the most populaion  as more muslims in there land  does not has any threat  to the world  the only problem to allart  the whole contents to be watching those call mosques in Russian soil  whether theey are establishing there mosques to be a threat  against  another religions on  or none followers  . Let everperson alives open there eyes to  know there poposes  on the contenent  ether for their intrest  or but God poposes.

jambouburgess
jambouburgess

Incredible

This toilet paper is as good as its boss Mr Murdock

4 days in and nothing about the french intervention in Mali?

nothing bad to say about it Mr murdock?



where44
where44 like.author.displayName 1 Like

It seems it has become necessary to have a problem by, Islamic fundamentalist

and terrorist, at the every corner of the Globe................!! 

mfhussain
mfhussain

@where44 and increasingly within your border. this is what happens when you have 7th century religious doctrine in a 21st century world. If the liberals had not given them so much support the muslim countries could have been isolated and left to fester and implode upon themselves...

innercitypress
innercitypress

Have to note: while TIME reports that "the UN Security Council held an emergency session Jan. 10 to pass a resolution calling for the 'swift deployment' of an international intervention force," what happened Jan. 10 was a (non-binding) "press statement" by the Security Council. It's a distinction worth making, see http://www.innercitypress.com/mali1frenchpress011213.html

On the other hand, TIME was right on in your reporting on the failures of the UN mission in the Congo. But a UNSC press statement is not a resolution.

Matthew Russell Lee, Esq., Inner City Press
Office at UN: Room L 253 B, UN HQ, NY NY 10017
Email Matthew.Lee [at] innercitypress.com  [& www.funca.info]
www.twitter.com/innercitypress
www.InnerCityPress.com

philstrawman
philstrawman

In the past colonialists won easily and were in control for long periods because they had guns and the locals didn't. Very simple.

Now, ak47's are everywhere, and explosives are not hard to obtain. Colonial dreamers are idiots, especially french and english.

The likely impacts they can make are the property destruction, and the killing/maiming of the locals. Maybe they consider those as their consolation prize.

universal93
universal93

As such France's intervention is just symbolic, it is just France's job since the crisis has reached the boiling point. All what is happening indicates a chance in the rules of engagement on the part of those opposing the Government. A democratically elected government or a military coup makes no difference to the peoples betterment -- it only worsens, and corruption thrives. The opposition can never fight the government on an open plane -- so, here is a classic case of external aid coming to the opposition -- and it is an open field day...with money and arms, probably better than the governments.  Technically anyone could be supporting the rebels, as in Libya or Syria, and if we hear of Al Qaeda it is no surprise. So France has to clean up the mess since it is a former french colony.

btt1943
btt1943

France, the former colonial master, has decided to march its troops into Mali. Such action can only aggravate the situation. If UN is hesitating, African Union ought to do something. Africans should understand Africa deeper.  (mtd1943)

6thangle
6thangle

Neo-colonization comes to a full swing. First have a coup then bring some unknown political force(for Muslim Africa something related to so called Jihadist, non muslim africa its just a brutal rebel force) as threat then make some UN resolution to intervene, last step take the colony back and capture its resources. Its so methodical !! Almost all African nations are under neo-colonial forces mail is going to be the new one. Who is next ?

stowevt024
stowevt024

MALI?  If the Canadain Minister wants international action send the canucks over there.  NO MORE! We have had enough.  Either declare an all out war against Islam and the extremists and murder and butcher every last one or forget about it.  These terrorists do not care.  This is a never ending war against ignorance.

where44
where44

@stowevt024 I agree with you in toto. If this so called Islam is  not taken care of today only,

It may be too late tomorrow....................!!

KevinCarr
KevinCarr like.author.displayName 1 Like

Good article about an important topic, with one glaring exception. Ql Queda linked fighters attack a country with a functioning democracy. France, historical ally of the region, and former colonial power, responds. How exactly is this like George Buch attacking a country with a legitimate, though deeply flawed, government, which posed no threat to the US, and whose relationship to US was never a colonial one. Perhaps the author is thinking of Oil company interests as equivalent to a colonial relationship. But the comment on the irony of France doing the same thing it  complained the US did is factually and ethically wrong.

JaredWoody
JaredWoody

@KevinCarr I think the author was striving more to parallel the American "Go anywhere in pursuit of terrorists" policy of 2001-2004 rather than specifically the Iraq invasion.
To that end, the French did take exception to the US policy of aggressive pursuit, as well as the Iraq issues.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

It's rather pathetic to watch these former empires (i.e. France, Britain) behaving like such uncertain pansies.

Just send in overwhelming force, blast the Hell out of the radical Islamic nuts, and send a clear, unmistakable message to other nutcases who are considering attempting similar idiotic actions.

antonionio
antonionio

@mrbomb13 @mrbomb13 Easy to say if you had no colonial history of oppressing local N. African populations as in Algeria. You might even call it France's 'Algeria Syndrome'. Unilateral French action would stir a nationalistic response that would not help the situation, but could indeed make it much worse.

France has been absolutely right to be hesitant and measured. And they were smart to wait for an African invitation to action. And, the numbers of AQ fighters in Mali is still rather minuscule, making it a perfect time to surgically remove AQ with Int'l consensus.

And, yes, the African Union needs to take as big a role as they can handle and take a leadership position.


Antonio

california

JaredWoody
JaredWoody

@mrbomb13 The big problem with that is the issue presented of having an industrial military power fighting asymmetrically against Islamists.
Just like the US won freedom from England by using guerrilla tactics, and the Iraqi insurgents nearly brought the US to our knees in 2006, it's not always the number of weapons you can put in the field, but the tactics and strategy behind them.

MattEisen
MattEisen like.author.displayName 1 Like

I'm surprised so called "experienced" journalists would write that "Europe and Africa were slow to respond". Europe doesn't want to step on the African Union's toes. They want to deal with their own problems first, no complaints from ex-colonial powers. 

I also wonder why the so-called journalist didn't include the US on that list? I don't see any US soldiers there? Slow to respond perhaps?

PaulVDaviesJunior
PaulVDaviesJunior

It is true as u stated in by saying us   is not on the ground  simply  it was the course  of the Malian  socalled  miltary take over  led all these  daster in  all to happen in the  country without sea  , what  that  a hell  miltaries  in  even countries without  cake to feed there familes  do take responsiblities  in puting  there population at risk , Sanago would have in position to fight  those insurgences call Islamic groups and even more should be  at  the front  line to chase  those criminals on  african land , we do not have criminals in our contentent . The only mistakes  the french  does should have ask Sanago to lead them to fight  those bandits  and  he would know that if his life spear  Sanago would learn from his stupid ideas of not allowing the international  forces to fighter earlier as now it is too late and and it is  threat to the whole content especially the west .

universal93
universal93

@MattEisen It is a convention that France takes care of Africa, especially the Francophone..technically France is the Boss...

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@MattEisen 

TIME Magazine has had to slash its editorial staff of writers and editors.  Consequently, attention-to-detail, depth, and breadth have gone missing from articles.

sensi
sensi like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

"Though his words and actions might bring to mind an America of more than a decade ago — and a U.S. administration that France implacably opposed —"

Only a TIME journalist would try to make an irrelevant comparison between the Iraq war of aggression launched after months of a broad propagandist campaign misleading the american people and this situation in Mali... And no, the world didn't ignored the situation in Mali, that is why 3000-like troops were set to be deployed in september and that there are UN security council resolutions voted to address the situation...

whisky87proof
whisky87proof

@sensi 3,000 unfunded, troops from governments nearly as unreliable as Mali's, it would have been a disaster, they would have fought there way into Gao from the east losing half their force then they would have sat their and starved unable to resupply themselves, then they would have started pillaging, then the population would turn on them, reciprocally increasing the violence,

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@sensi 

First, TIME (unfortunately) is not the only journalistic source who would that kind of an unwarranted, ridiculous comparison.  Newsweek/Daily Beast, CNN, Yahoo!, and The New York Times (among others) would do the same thing.

Second, I agree with you - the comparison is irrelevant.  Yet, such drivel makes it to press by TIME's standard.