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Mali: France's Afghanistan?

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Is France's military intervention in Mali a neo-colonial enterprise, dressed up in the conveniently ‎nebulous language of the 'war on terror'? France's less than gleaming record in the region - ‎with 50 military interventions, since the 50 years of independence in 14 francophone African ‎countries - has left many questioning the official narrative of restoring order to the country.

In the midst of its economic woes, cynics might look at France's intervention in Libya which brought ‎home lucrative oil and reconstruction contracts and point to Mali's significant natural resources. ‎Others speculate that Hollande's shaky political standing and the virtually unquestioned support ‎bestowed upon any leader opining to combat Al Qaeda and its associates, offers motivations closer ‎to home. Few things can ensure political consensus on the French political scene the way ‎‎'operation Serval' has. A few renegades not withstanding - including former PM Dominique de ‎Villepin who drew parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan - the Socialists, UMP and even the National ‎Front have approved Hollande's decision. But surely if the decade has taught us anything about ‎defeating highly motivated guerrilla groups, it is that short interventions turn into protracted, ‎bloody battles which can only actually be resolved at the diplomatic table. ‎

So why has France decided to intervene and why now? Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has ‎been a longstanding concern in the region and the suggestion it has teamed up with criminal and ‎militant elements in the lawless region in northern Mali is bound to create some concern. This is ‎particularly true as these elements take advantage of the power vacuum which has followed Mali's ‎military coup in March 2012, to expand control over greater parts of the north, emboldened by the ‎government's unresponsiveness. Indeed, in October last year an EU official warned ""We consider ‎AQIM the growing, and maybe the leading, threat against us."‎

In the last few years, the northern region has become a haven for criminal activity and a key transit ‎route for cocaine trafficking. A recent United Nations mission in the Sahel region described ‎northern Mali as a dangerous crossroads of drugs, crime, terrorism and rebellion. Until recently, ‎Mali's disaffected ethnic tuaregs, a nomadic people at odds with the Mali government, had ‎teamed with jihadists to take control over an area the size of France, in a marriage of convenience ‎which soon ended in infighting. Criminal activity has funded the purchase of weapons used to ‎impose an extremist form of control, which has included public executions and the use of child ‎soldiers. ‎

This growing militancy in northern Mali has occurred alongside the demise of one of West Africa's ‎hopes, as the military overthrow of a democratic government has left the country as just another ‎‎'failed state.' Given broader instability in the region, namely that of the indigenous militants of the ‎Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, arms floating around following NATO support to rebels in Libya, ‎and the predominantly Algerian AQIM, a small but dangerous group involved in the hostage crisis ‎on an oil plant in alleged retaliation for France's "crusade", the implications of Mali's instability are ‎far reaching for the region. Popular support for French intervention among African leaders should ‎be understood in light of the instability wrought by extremist elements and more cynically, to the ‎Western aid which may also ensue.‎

On one hand, the extremist alliance at work in northern Mali, which includes AQIM, Mali's ‎homegrown Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar Dine rebels suggests an ‎emboldening of jihadist elements in the face of West Africa's struggling states. Though a military ‎solution will likely defeat this threat, although perhaps not as quickly as the French might hope, ‎Foreign minister Laurent Fabius having optimistically predicted the intervention would last "a ‎matter of weeks"- it is unlikely to resolve systemic political instability. A military intervention looks ‎a lot like a quick fix solution to a much deeper problem which involves a legacy of failed states, ‎poverty, ethnic tensions and corruption. Northern Mali has never been properly integrated into ‎the state, with poor social indicators across the board, leaving an alienated ethnical tuareg minority ‎willing to forge insalubrious alliances. Oxford researcher in African studies, Harry Verhoeven ‎described the problem, saying: "the jihadists are a symptom, veiling a deeper crisis of ‎underdevelopment, failed nation-building and faltering public services delivery in Mali and the ‎Sahel more broadly."

Comparisons with Afghanistan have their limitations, but after 11 years of armed conflict, the ‎realisation has dawned on many that the political stability of any nation cannot be secured through ‎strictly military means. French President François Hollande has described the goal of the operation ‎as "to ensure that when we leave (...) Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process ‎and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory." A unilateral military approach alone is ‎unlikely to achieve any of these goals. Without addressing the endemic problems which contribute ‎to the fragility of Mali's state, France's actions could simply be adding fuel to the fire. ‎