Mali: France's Afghanistan?

Is France's military intervention in Mali a neo-colonial enterprise, dressed up in the conveniently nebulous language of the 'war on terror'?

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.

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