Paris’ gunships struck Islamist targets in the northern Malian town of Kona on Friday in support of a combined ground intervention by African troops from the Economic Community of West African States. French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reported that during the operation, the French military suffered one casualty.
On the works for months, the intervention mandated by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085 is meant to put an end to the swift takeover of northern Mali that Tuareg and Islamist groups undertook, in the process causing the political collapse of the central government through a military coup.
Instability in the Sahel has heightened since last year’s collapse of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime in Libya during a popular uprising that was supported by NATO air and naval forces. The “Arab spring” in Libya caused a considerable power vacuum which brought political disunity along that country’s Mediterranean coast, loss of control over southern Libya and significant advanced weaponry in the hands of smugglers who have been able to export it to such conflict areas as Gaza and Syria.
After a brief Cold War flirtation with Islamist terrorism, Gaddafi became a strong opponent of Salafist organizations and cooperated closely with Western intelligence to stave off such influences in the Sahara and Sahel regions. Thus the rebellion against him was also comprised of Salafists who seized the first opportunity to subvert an important opponent. The September attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi was further proof of their renewed presence in Libyan society and political life.
Mali being yet another side effect of Gaddafi’s demise, the country suffered the worst as local Tuaregs and the Salafists of Ansar Dine expelled the Malian army from the north, declared the secession of that territory and assumed independent rule under the name of Azawad in April. Sharia was declared law in the region and non-Muslim historical landmarks desecrated and vandalized.
These events put France in a difficult position since Paris not only has business interests and citizens to protect in Mali but had not approved of the military coup d’état that overthrew the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré. To make matters worse, regional power Algeria has been pushing for a negotiated solution, fearing that France might resort to a full recognition of the Tuareg state in order to bring stability and isolate the Salafists. Not only would this further delegitimize colonial borders; it would provide a sanctuary for potential support to other independence minded Tuareg populations across the Sahel, including in southern Algeria.
In reality, many of Africa’s borders bear no semblance of reality to ethnic, religious and demographic distribution of populations or viable economic delimitation. As such, the independence of a Tuareg state would make sense, particularly considering that this desert dwelling people could more easily monitor the movements of organisations such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine. It would also be historically coherent with the background of the region.
The Economic Community of West African States has some experience in peacekeeping but precious little in conventional fighting. It also has a limited budget and no knowledge of desert warfare. All this spells doom for a force which will be required to control a big territorial area under difficult conditions.
France had equated providing only technical advisors as well as financial and logistic support but the latest move to employ aircraft and some special forces might signify a change in direction to a more involved role. This would in turn mean that Paris may have decided not to confront Algeria and instead force Malian rule over Azawad, thus thwarting Tuareg hopes of independence. Essentially the French are solving in Mali a problem of their own making, using American president Barack Obama’s approach of limited involvement.