The hostage drama in an Algerian gas field is a brutal reminder of the perils of western intervention. A French military operation in Mali, a country whose difficulties were largely unknown to broader public opinion until a few days ago, seems to have tipped the world back towards a dangerous confrontation with radical Islam.
The lessons are many but the first is that whereas 60,000 civilian deaths in Syria’s civil war still leaves the international community divided and hesitant to intervene militarily, the harsh Islamic rebel order that has been imposed in northern Mali prompted no such hesitancy, although there has been no comparable toll in lives. Even if this is the first much of the world has heard about it, diplomats and defence officials in Paris, Washington and at the UN in New York have been talking intervention for months. Indeed, the French action has provided a substitute for a much more leisurely Security Council -approved UN deployment of neighbouring African peacekeeping troops. The rebels seemed to be about to advance on the Malian capital, Bamako: Mali’s beleaguered Government and the French felt an immediate intervention had become necessary.
So the first lesson is a rueful reminder for many of us that national security interests still trump humanitarian need when it comes to intervention. While the world dithers, and the Russians veto when it comes to the complex horrors of current Syria, the Security Council approval and international community support quickly falls into place when an al-Qaeda-linked movement threatens the stability of states.
Thereafter though, the parallels for Mali are Afghanistan not Syria. The French operation risks following the same trajectory of early honeymoon and apparent success followed by a long, bitter and losing engagement with no clear exit strategy.
The French with their own bitter experience in neighbouring Algeria’s colonial war are well aware of the risks. President François Hollande’s campaign commitments to avoid African entanglements means he will not have entered into this adventure lightly whatever the temporary fillip to his poll numbers. Beyond rightly feeling circumstances left them no choice, he and his advisers have pulled off the first phase of the operation with a very French aplomb that we British or Americans can only marvel at. Planners in Washington had been contemplating drone attacks which would be a much more problematic response than this combination of air power and ground troops. It may be lower tech (one of two British loaned C17 transport planes apparently quickly broke down) but it’s better politics.
France’s network of contacts in Francophone West Africa remains unrivaled and therefore Hollande’s team has been able to accelerate the deployment of ground troops from neighbours as anxious as the West to contain an expansion of revolutionary Islam. In doing so France will keep the region’s governments if not all of its People on side.
While the hostage crisis and the vulnerability of the growing number of foreign-operated oil and gas facilities across Africa seems likely to bring early rain on the French parade, the real dangers lie ahead. First, that the loosely networked al-Qaeda brand will avoid pitched battles with the French and melt back into the desert, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, regroup and begin an insurgency against a logistically stretched occupier mounting attacks not just in Mali but back home in France through Islamic sympathisers. Second, the suddenness of the intervention risks aborting a political process to encourage the regime in Bamako to broaden its legitimacy and authority so that it can offer credible national leadership. Coups and political confusion have created the weak local partner that has dogged interventions of this kind from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
Without a credible government to hand back control to there could be no easy exit for France and its allies from a military occupation that may over time seed its own backlash as liberators become occupiers. There is a further critical point. The troubles began with a mildly Islamic Tuareg ethnic secessionist movement in northern Mali that has been hijacked by jihadists. The former need to be got back on side. This will require deep local knowledge of politics and culture which the French no doubt have but which tends in these crises to be pushed aside in a military driven operational planning process.
The French have given refreshingly firm leadership to a needed intervention but as the stand-off around the Algerian gas field shows it is already starting to get harder. The need to find a political solution to Mali’s divisions is even more important now than it was before French boots hit its desert ground.