Issues in Mali are extremely complicated

By Dale R. Herspring

After doing some research on Mali, it is clear to me that the issues there are more complex than just the French vs. Islamic radicals. It’s also evident that situation could have a major impact on not only that region of northwest Africa but in Europe and the United States as well.

If the issue were just a case of the French going to Mali to kick some badguys out, the operation would have ended by now. After all, while the French Air Force has been involved in the operation, the regular French Army has not. Instead, ground forces are from the French Foreign Legion — one of the finest fighting forces in the world. The problem is that Mali is a large country, and regardless of how good French forces are, 2,500 to 5,000 troops are hardly enough to pacify a country that covers 480,000 square miles.

What’s more, military force alone will not solve the problem.  The French are experiencing something we learned in Vietnam and again in Afghan-istan: It is not easy to tell friends from enemies. Further-more, locals sometimes support the Islamists out of a fear that the Islamists will come back. In either case, support for any government in Bamako, Mali’s capital, will be conditional. 

France’s real problems are twofold. First, France has massive economic interests in the Sahara-Sahel region; French citizens are everywhere. One of the ways Islamic terrorists have supported themselves has been by kidnapping Europeans or Americans for ransom. There have already been calls to strike at French interests and citizens, “everywhere — in Bamako, in Africa and Europe.”  The Legion can drive the rebels back and return to their own bases or even keep troops in Mali, but that won’t solve the problem. 

The confrontation could easily destabilize the entire region and lead to terrorists attacking not only French interests but those of many other countries, including China, which has major investments in oil extraction there. That is probably why both China and Russia in the U.N. Security council supported France’s intervention. Britain, Germany, Russia and Canada are providing aircraft to transport French troops to Mali. The United States is providing intelligence, and Paris has asked us to send drones as well. 

Another complicating factor is that — as was the case with many African countries — no one considered Mali’s ethnic make-up when it was created.  Mali contains three major groups — Black Africans, Tuaregs and Arabs. The Tuaregs have been in periodic revolt against Bamako and are leading the charge against the government now. The top three Taureg militia commanders fighting the French were trained by U.S. Special Forces, which didn’t at the time recognize the importance of the ethnic factor. Mali’s government does not trust either the Tuaregs or the Arabs. In fact, some analysts believe that if Bamako retakes the northern part of the country, it will unleash racially inspired violence.

From a military standpoint, the Tuaregs and the Arabs have the most effective militias. Mali’s army has little experience planning military operations and none mounting joint operations. The Legion would rather not have Mali’s army around because it is so poorly trained that it gets in the way. In short, if Paris wants to leave Mali with a stable and effective military, it may not only have to train the army from scratch but also figure out a way to establish a stable government that successfully integrates all segments of the population. 

The French are trying to get other African nations to take the lead in this operation. A few soldiers from Togo, Benin and Nigeria have arrived. Other countries are hesitating, worried about the long-term implications of such an operation.

As regards terrorism, imagine what could happen if al Qaeda in the Maghreb decides to focus on Western energy interests. The recent attack on the gas field at Amenas in Algeria demonstrates how vulnerable such facilities are. Many experts believe that attack was just the beginning. As the response of Algerian commandos demonstrated, there is no guarantee that even a relatively well-trained commando force can be successful in rescuing hostages. 

The real question for the French (and the rest of the world) is now what? France’s socialist president, Francois Hollande, rushed into this military action, and there is every indication that had he not sent troops, the Tuaregs would have taken several towns, although some observers doubt that they would have entered that Black African areas. I don’t have a solution to Hollande’s dilemma. The left always says go home, while the right always wants to fight it out. It is time to ask the hard question. What is in France’s long-term interest?

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain

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