from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Mali: Vive La France

January 14, 2013

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The French intervention in Mali deserves American applause and support, and thus far is getting both.

While regarded for many years as one of Africa’s model democracies, Mali had a weak central government and never seriously addressed the north-south regional conflict within the country. That conflict exploded last year, and the timing reflected the return home of Malians who had served in Qadhafi’s forces. They brought arms back with them and quickly overwhelmed Malian Defense Force (MDF) troops and captured most of the north. This humiliation for the MDF in turn contributed to a military coup that has left Mali with an even weaker government--and left it ineligible for American aid.

International attention turned to Mali because among the forces in the north--who include Tuaregs who have long sought more regional autonomy and better treatment by the central government, Islamist groups, criminal gangs who live from the ransoms paid by people they kidnap, and those returning from Libya (and these groups overlap)--is AQIM, Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. If northern Mali turns permanently into ungoverned territory that can be used as an AQIM and AQ base, it will become an African version of Afghanistan before the U.S. military action there.

Prior to last week the international planning to help Mali was completely inadequate. A plan approved by the UN Security Council called for 5,500 MDF troops to be backed by several thousand troops from neighboring African states that, like Mali, are members of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. But the MDF no longer has 5,500 soldiers to field; the ECOWAS troops will be slow in coming and they are untrained and unequipped for desert warfare; and the months needed to get such a force ready would give AQIM useful time to get stronger and take more territory.

Indeed they began to move south and seeing the dangers France acted. In previous statements going back to last year President Hollande had said France would not do this, so his reversal reflects a new conclusion that the situation is dire and must be prevented from worsening. French success in stopping AQIM advances--or the advances of groups like the Islamist-led Ansar Dine--are very much in American interests and we should be giving France any military and intelligence help it needs. It appears that President Obama has made that decision, and one can only hope that we stick with it--especially if the going gets rough.

A negotiated political solution between the central government and northern groups is what Mali needs, but that will be impossible until the government is strengthened and AQIM is dealt a severe military setback. So France’s intervention is critical and must be helped to succeed. President Hollande has made a difficult and indeed dangerous decision: AQ has already made threats about terrorist attacks inside France. France deserves our full support.