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Does France Know What It's Doing In Mali?

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It's easy - almost too easy - to predict disaster for the French-initiated military action in Mali. After all, given what we know of the Afghanistan and Iraq adventures, who would want to put money on Paris being able to cry "victoire" when they eventually leave?

The attack on the gas plant in neighbouring Algeria - with as yet, at time of writing, an unknown number of casualties - has served only to heighten the fears, even if we don't know for certain that the Algeria attack was linked to the actions of the French military in Mali.

Algeria knows all about battling Islamists, having suffered a decade-long civil war in which tens of thousands of people were killed. If the crisis in Mali is going to re-ignite that conflict - and perhaps raise tensions in other neighbouring countries like Mauritania - the consequences could be severe.

So what have the French got themselves into? And even more importantly, do they have any idea how they're going to get themselves out again?

I confess I heard loud alarm bells ringing when I read that President Fran├žois Hollande said that France would stay in Mali until it is "safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory".

That is a mighty ambitious aim, far too ambitious, many might suggest, in the light of what we have learned from previous "anti-terrorist" interventions. And, without wanting to belabour the point unduly, it does sound uncannily similar to what we used to hear from the White House about how the US was going to build stable, prosperous democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When I wrote about Mali in a blogpost last October, sketching in some of the background to the crisis and what was likely to happen over the coming months, I referred to the military coup in March of last year, and the rebellion by Tuareg separatists and al Qaeda-linked jihadi fighters who had taken over much of the north of the country.

As a result, I wrote: "Half the country or more, including the famed city of Timbuktu, is in the hands of the Islamists. And Western governments are desperately worried that al-Qaeda is well on the way to establishing a new toe-hold in a newly-failed state."

I added: "I wouldn't expect anything to happen quickly in Mali. But it may well be that sooner or later, a [foreign-backed] force will move in." And so it has come to pass, although no one expected the French to go in on their own, or without any prior warning.

Early reports have suggested that France has been surprised by the strength and resistance of the jihadi fighters. They have arms and equipment acquired from the Libya of Muammar Gaddafi, where some of them fought as pro-Gaddafi mercenaries, and millions of dollars in cash acquired from ransoms paid for kidnapped foreigners.

Perhaps, when you heard about the deployment of French forces, you wondered what a rebellion in the middle of the Sahara desert could possibly have to do with the rest of us. I suspect the events in Algeria over the past couple of days have answered the question for you.

But it is worth reflecting that not all foreign military interventions are failures. In May 2000, for example, British forces intervened decisively in another West African country, Sierra Leone, when armed rebels looked as if they might be about to advance on the capital. (Exactly the same scenario, as it happens, that led French forces to intervene in Mali.)

The Sierra Leone rebels were stopped in their tracks, the government was able to build up its strength, and the British were out again, by and large, by September of the same year. The brutal civil war came to an end, and Tony Blair became even more convinced of the moral justification for what, for a time, was known as "humanitarian intervention".

Earlier, in Bosnia and Kosovo, after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, international military intervention had also successfully ended the mass killings of civilians - it may well be that no sustainable political settlement has been reached, even now, but at least the slaughter stopped.

But why such decisive action in Mali, and not, for example, in Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions have died over the past decade in what is sometimes known as Africa's world war? The answer is a simple one: the fighters in Congo do not directly threaten the West. They are not driven by ideology, or religion, and they do not threaten to attack Western targets.

Mind you, it's perfectly possible that the jihadi fighters in northern Mali are not the religious zealots they are usually portrayed as. According to the US-based regional risk and security consultant Geoff Porter: "Until 2012, AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Maghreb] in the Sahara had been a relatively successful criminal organization - kidnap for ransom, smuggling, narco-trafficking, etc - but it was not a very good or very committed salafi jihadi terrorist organization. From 2008 until 2012 it prioritized making money over ideology."

Has that now changed? We may be about to find out. But Porter suggests that as the former colonial power in the region, the French know only too well the limitations of what they are likely to be able to achieve, whatever President Hollande may say.

"France does not have to transform northern Mali into an environment in which it is impossible for [the various jihadi groups] to operate," he wrote this week. "It simply has to make it an environment in which it is significantly more difficult for them to operate."