When future historians describe France’s military operations in the early 21st century, they may refer to “strategic hiccups”, so inconsistent has the overall strategy been over the last decade. To be described adequately, the operations in Mali must be placed in their long-term politico-military context.
Soon after 9/11, France decided to support the rapid strike intended to topple Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. Since it had few interests in the region, and since the capture of Kabul by “warlords” did not fundamentally change Afghanistan’s endemic state of chaos, France was initially careful not to commit too many ground troops. In September 2002 several thousand troops were sent to Ivory Coast as part of a UN peacekeeping operation. They were fully involved in ground operations and succeeded in preventing full-scale civil war in this former “showcase of francophone Africa”, where France had major interests.
In 2003, after some hesitation, France declined to take part in the US’s neoconservative adventure in Iraq, warning that it would bring chaos to the region and risk a split between the self-proclaimed “moral powers” and the Arab world, which was in the midst of a political and identity crisis. In 2007 France, which had been maintaining a stance of “disengaged engagement” in Afghanistan, allowed the US to drag it into a campaign of counter-insurrectional democratisation, burdened with unrealistic moral objectives and doomed to failure despite the professionalism and dedication of the troops involved. In Libya in 2011, with a tragicomic mixture of sloppy rhetoric and military efficiency, France brought down a dictatorial regime that was no more grotesque than any other, and lastingly destabilised the whole of northern Africa, opening the door to hardline Islamists financed and armed by the Gulf oil states (1).
Finding any logic in this vacillation between realism stemming from impotence and idealism stemming from a lack of forethought is a challenge. It also makes analysing the Mali episode more interesting. The French government, after months of procrastination, trapped by its own contradictions, which allowed its opponents time to prepare, is now trying to repair the local damage caused by its intervention in Libya. This, by helping to arm the more radical factions in the Sahel, has established the dominance of the Salafist jihadis of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) and of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Tuareg rebellion, speeding both the defeat of the Mali government forces and political destabilisation in Bamako.
Deciding what to do has taken some time. As late as 11 October, François Hollande was insisting that there would be “no men on the ground, no engagement by French troops” and that France would only provide material support to Mali’s armed forces (2). This statement imprudently restricted France’s own freedom of action and ran the risk of being contradicted by the local situation, about which very little was known. On 10 January the key town of Konna, 700km northeast of Bamako, was captured by Islamist fighters of Ansar Dine and AQIM. There was then nothing between them and the capital. With the Economic Community Of West African States (Ecowas) waiting to see what happened, the EU cautious and the US sceptical, only the option of French fighter planes and ground troops was left.
On 11 January France launched Operation Serval and, three months after declaring that France could not intervene on behalf of African countries, Hollande was forced to contradict himself. This casts doubt on the government’s anticipatory capabilities, and underlines the importance of understanding what “stabilisation” may involve in the future, at different levels.
Where is ‘stabilisation’ going?
Behind France’s procrastination lies the quagmire of Afghanistan. This reflects the failure of the US culturalist theory of “global counter-insurrection”, which has over-extended the timeframe for “stabilisation”, confused tactical action with policy, over-moralised the objectives of the war in Afghanistan and so denied itself a credible exit strategy. But the situation in Mali demonstrates that the failure of a strategic theory that has kept 100,000 men in the Afghan theatre of war for a decade without giving them any achievable objective does not diminish the need for stabilisation or “interposition” operations.
The lesson of Afghanistan is not that ground troops should never be committed, as Hollande over-hastily concluded, but that any configuration is possible, as long as it observes four cardinal rules: First, autonomy in the evaluation of threats — the true definition of “terrorism” is to be found neither in PowerPoint slideshows at the Pentagon, nor in the novels of Bernard-Henri Lévy (though we can learn much about the Saheli “terrorists” from books on history and sociology). Second, legitimacy — stabilising a country does not mean imposing a supervisory presence indefinitely, thus risking undermining the government in the eyes of its neighbours and of its own people. Third, operational efficiency — the duration of any frontline military operation (which must have extensive resources at its disposal), should be limited, once the tactical and operational objectives have been achieved, so that local and regional political balances may recover and national armed forces can be built up. Finally, freedom of political action — an exit strategy must be planned and defined before the start of the operation and the assistance of allies is indispensable, provided they are willing collaborators and convinced of their interest in the area.
Does Mali meet these criteria? In terms of legitimacy, unlike the unjustified war in Afghanistan, France’s involvement in maintaining the stability of Africa is based on solid arguments, those of linguistic, cultural and geographical closeness (3). It would be a mistake to lump together the misguided ways of “Françafrique” and the conclusion of useful military agreements with African countries, provided that their sovereignty is truly respected, and that there is also a lesser degree of economic dependence. France’s 2008 White Paper on defence and national security, by neglecting Africa, for a time, in favour of establishing a base in the Gulf, to keep a check on Iran, disregarded the principle of geo-subsidiarity — that the main stabilisation or interposition efforts of a “power” should ideally focus on areas that are logically of interest to it: China, India and Russia have a greater long-term interest in Afghanistan than France does, but China and the US cannot teach France anything about the subtleties of western Africa, in spite of the rapid growth in the number of “instructors” they are sending to the area.
From a geographer’s viewpoint, co-presence leads to coalescence: the definition works for strategy too. France’s military assistance policy in Africa, for example the Epervier task force in Chad, is revealing (4). The Reinforcement of African Peace-keeping Capacities (Recamp) concept is even more so; set up in 1997, it was considered a success and was transposed to European level in 2004 (Eurocamp, in partnership with the African Union). France continues to apply Recamp with a number of African countries that favour the idea. These initiatives are not enough to guarantee the capability of the troops they train (the example of Mali speaks for itself), but they show how a policy of providing assistance, without intervention, to the armed forces of partner nations could develop in Africa, including high-intensity actions against irregular forces that are now heavily armed.
This background of mutual knowledge partly explains why the Ecowas summit in Abidjan on 19 January voted unanimously to speed the strengthening of the International Support Mission for Mali, so as to provide effective support to the Malian and French forces involved in Operation Serval. Eight countries — Muslim and Christian, francophone and anglophone — have promised to contribute. Chad, Togo, Benin, Senegal, Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Ghana are to send 3,600 troops.
The time required
When it comes to defining the enemy — and limiting the objectives of the intervention — the record is mixed. Hollande’s declaration on 19 January that France will stay in Mali “for as long as is necessary to ensure victory over terrorism” (5) is a sign of a new, almost Sarkozian recklessness with words. Having announced that France would not intervene, he was saying, three months later, that no time limit had been set on its presence in Mali. Does this mean that the “strategic hiccups” are about to start up again? The reappearance of the simplistic and open-ended slogan “war on terror” in connection with Mali is all the more troubling because the US, which coined it, abandoned it in 2009 (6). (Barack Obama belatedly remarked that it was stupid to make war on a mode of action without studying the political causes of the fires you were trying to put out, after having lit them.) “Terrorism” cannot be conquered any more than seasonal flu can be eradicated. It can only be restricted. A mode of action, however reprehensible it may be in absolute terms, is by definition theoretically available to any partisan fighter, and using that mode of action does not necessarily bar them from playing a role in any future negotiated settlement. This idea may be shocking but there are the examples of the FLN in Algeria, Michael Collins in Ireland, the UCK in Kosovo, the Irgun in Israel, and the “good Taliban” with whom Hamid Karzai will have to negotiate after 2014 in Afghanistan.
Strategic efficiency requires that the enemy and the objective be more carefully defined, and that the head of state should rather speak of “the time required to drive the most radical irregular Saheli forces permanently from Malian territory.” Once Operation Serval has achieved this reasonable objective, this would leave a welcome amount of room for a political agreement between the Malian government in Bamako, its regional supporters and a nebulous adversary made up of former and present irregular fighters, opportunist traffickers, army deserters, neo-jihadists radicalised by Gulf Wahhabism and “secular” independence fighters. The complex situation in Mali cannot be understood by considering everything in terms of a “global war on terrorism”.
A medium-term goal better suited to the situation in Mali, the Sahel and North Africa would also be more in line with the actual capabilities of France’s armed forces, which are about to suffer their biggest budget cuts for a decade. France’s foreign and defence ministries are confident. It remains to be seen whether the country’s military can sustain the required effort for the duration. How will France’s White Paper on defence and national security, due to be published in the next couple of months, take account of Operation Serval?