France’s Intervention in Mali Is Not the Next Afghanistan

When French president Francois Hollande launched Operation Serval, an unexpected bombing campaign to dislodge Islamist militants in Mali’s north, it led many onlookers to deem the conflict the next “Afghanistan.” Geographically and politically the Malian conflict is indeed eerily redolent of the Afghan struggle. Mali’s north is desolate, ungovernable and composed largely of notoriously inhospitable hinterlands. In this environment, Ansar Dine arrogated power easily after a destabilizing coup in mid 2012. These points certainly mirror the early 1990s Afghanistan.

Although international “Afghaniphobia” rightfully sparked Operation Serval, it is not the next Afghan war. That is to say, it is not the repeat of a deplorable, unwanted coalition invasion in the spirit of the American War-on-Terror.

The Malian government is a semi-functioning democracy. It is certainly imperfect, but given its tumultuous history of invasion, colonization (by none other than the French themselves) and insurgency its imperfections can be forgiven. However, among those unfortunate imperfections are a lack of control over its peripheries and a virtually impotent military. When Ansar Dine usurped the throne in the country’s north the Malian central government was virtually incapable of derailing the rebellion independently.

It was in this context that Malian interim president Dioncounda Traore pled to the international community for help. The UN and Nato agreed, but set a timeline aimed at intervening in the Fall of 2013. The official timeline was jettisoned when Ansar Dine pushed south into the central city of Kona. The Islamist rebels were creeping treacherously close to the Malian Capital of Bamako. Without foreign intervention a full-scale takeover of Mali was imminent.

The irony of France launching a unilateral intervention to protect its former colony is not lost on anyone, French or Malian. Yet, it is France’s sordid colonial history in Africa that makes it uniquely equipped to handle the situation. The European nation has 3,500 troops permanently garrisoned in Africa. Its military presence spans multiple countries including Senegal, Gabon, Djibouti, Chad, Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic.

Few other countries are equipped for rapid, full-scale involvement in the region. Thus, France was forced to step to the plate.

Beyond the necessitation and outright governmental cry for help, there is another important distinction between Operation Serval and the American War-on-Terror in Afghanistan. The war is extremely popular among the locals. Locals feared that the distortion of Sharia law adopted by Ansar Dine would soon metastasize into the entirety of Mali. Although Neighboring nations were initially scheduled to carry out the mission, many Malians opined that the African Coalition would lack the competence necessary to carry out the formidable task. Some even referred to the local coalition armies as “comedians” who would do little more than loot and exacerbate the situation.

Thus, the French intervention has been met primarily with gratitude. The French flag has been raised across the nation in solidarity with operation Serval.

This is not to suggest that the operation is without its misgivings. The ripple effects of this mission are difficult to predict. With a hostage crisis looming at a factory in Algeria, Al-Shabab promising the execution of French captives, and the mission’s rapid evolution into a ground assault, the operation does not carry with it the ease of NATO’s Libya mission.

True to the Afghanistan analogy, France may be entering a military quagmire painfully redolent of the American War-on-Terror. The similarities of the two missions, however, stop at the rebel’s ideology. The coupling of Ansar Dine encroaching on South Mali and France’s ignominious colonial history grimly necessitated Operation Serval. Without the French intervention West Africa could face sinister destabilizing effects well beyond Mali’s borders. The end result of Operation Serval is impossible to predict, but the result of abstinence would have been predictably catastrophic.

By Ben Steiner, Aslan Media Contributor
*Photo Credit: Emilio Labrador

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