Why Afghan Ghosts Haunt France’s Mali Intervention

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ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP / Getty Images

A Malian police officer stands on the roadside as a convoy of French army soldiers leave Bamako and start a deployment to the north of Mali as part of the "Serval" operations on Jan. 15, 2013

Comparisons with Afghanistan are inevitable when any Western country sends its military to war in a Muslim country where al-Qaeda has set up shop — and the comparison may be a particularly uncomfortable one for France’s mission in Mali. French officials initially drew the link themselves, explaining the air campaign and deployment of ground troops that began last week as a way to prevent al-Qaeda from turning a country twice the size of France into a West African equivalent of Afghanistan in the 1990s — a sanctuary and staging ground from which the jihadists projected terror into distant Western capitals. But Paris has just as quickly sought to squelch any association in the mind of its public with the NATO mission in Afghanistan now slowly drawing to an ambiguous conclusion more than 11 years after it began. After all, France withdrew its last combat troops from that mission in November, having lost faith in the coalition’s exit strategy.

The problem facing Paris now is that some of the assumptions of its own exit strategy in Mali may be just as open to question as those that underlie the U.S. exit strategy in Afghanistan. First and foremost is the idea, common to both theaters, that local forces can be quickly stood up to hold the line against the militants. “Malians remember well that only a few months ago, insurgent forces ejected the army from northern Mali as if they were throwing a drunk from a bar,” noted Columbia University historian Gregory Mann earlier this week. “Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal fell in a weekend. The army collapsed, and it has only been weakened by internal fighting since. Any other story is a fairy tale,” he said. “Last week’s Islamist offensive put paid to the argument that the Malian army itself was capable of defending the country from further attack and of liberating territory over which it had lost control.”

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It’s precisely that recognition that prompted last week’s French intervention. If the Islamists, who already control half the country in the north, overran the south, that would render redundant a U.N. plan to field a West African force that would have launched an offensive to recapture the north toward the end of 2013. “President [François] Hollande had originally planned to support the West African force only by ‘leading from behind,’ providing training, intelligence, logistical support and special forces to help reconquer the northern part of Mali by next summer,” explained Camille Grand, director of the Paris-based defense-policy think tank Foundation for Strategic Research. “The decision to act directly was only taken when it became clear that the original schedule would be difficult to meet and that most of Mali could fall into the hands of radical Islamist groups. France feared seeing the entire Sahel become another gray zone where terrorists could prosper and train, similar to Afghanistan or Somalia, but just a few thousand kilometers away from Europe.”

Still, the French government has promised its public a short war. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius last weekend said the intervention would last “a matter of weeks” — although a second, unnamed official told the Financial Times it would, in fact, last “tens of weeks.” After three days of pummeling by French fighter planes failed to stop the rebels from capturing the key garrison town of Diabaly 400 km north of Bamako on Monday, it was clear that the arrival of Western air power wasn’t going to scatter the insurgents, and that France’s war in Mali may not be as brief as its political leaders would prefer. There’s a limit to how much can be accomplished from the air across the vast desert terrain, with the insurgents able to embed with civilian populations. France currently has 1,700 ground troops in Mali and plans to raise its deployment to 2,500 — close to the highest number it fielded in Afghanistan.

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On Tuesday, Hollande said the goal of the operation was “to ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.” That’s an ambitious agenda given the conditions that prevail in Mali and its neighborhood, considering the limited number of troops thus far committed by France and Mali’s African neighbors (which, under the rubric of the regional security federation ECOWAS, have collectively pledged a 2,000-strong force). And it puts a question mark over French hopes of quickly transferring primary combat responsibility to others. Although Britain and the U.S. have offered logistical and intelligence support, no Western powers are currently offering to share in the combat, which puts France in a situation not dissimilar to the U.S.’s current status in Afghanistan.

Nor are the Malian and ECOWAS forces likely to decisively tip the balance. The former performed poorly against the insurgents and the latter still requires extensive training for the mission. As the Guardian’s West Africa contributor Andy Morgan noted, “The north of Mali is as alien to the average soldier from southern Mali as the Alaskan tundra is to a citizen of Massachusetts or Manchester. That sense of alienation will be felt even more keenly by troops from Nigeria, Senegal, Benin and Ivory Coast, used to jungle and savannah bush warfare, when they finally roll onto the vast treeless plains of the southern Sahara.”

(PHOTOS: Mali’s Militiamen: A Country Split in Two Readies for War)

Thus the “fairy tale” of which Mann warned: no regional analysts familiar with the capabilities of the Malian and ECOWAS forces would bet the farm on their ability, without French combat assistance, to beat back the well-trained, well-armed, well-financed and highly motivated nomadic jihadists, who are well versed in the hit-and-run tactics against which any conventional forces will struggle in the arid wastes of the Sahel.

If Hollande defines success as the elimination of an al-Qaeda threat to Mali, then, the likelihood is that this will be a long engagement. Even the goal of re-establishing an electoral process and a legitimate government in Bamako is far from simple: the current regime originates from a military coup last year when midlevel army officers — to the embarrassment of the U.S. military, which had been training the Malian armed forces — seized power from the civilian government. In the ensuing turmoil, at least one whole unit of the Malian forces defected, with its weapons and equipment, to the insurgent side. Even now, there’s considerable political turmoil and division between rival political camps in the capital, while suspicions persist in some quarters over the political agenda of the military leadership, and also over the benign intentions of some neighboring countries.

Of course, this will all sound somewhat familiar to those who have followed the war in Afghanistan. But despite misgivings, the French saw the alternative of staying passive as the militants overran much of Mali as too ghastly to contemplate. Still, warned European Council on Foreign Relations analyst Jonas Parello-Plesner, “The worst-case scenario is that France gets bogged down on the ground and then pulls out quickly in order to avoid a quagmire, leaving the mess to a semiprepared African military mission.” And as the U.S. discovered in Afghanistan, an intervention in a failing state can confound hopes for a brief and tidy war.

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