French intervention

Print edition : February 08, 2013

French troops arrive at Bamako's airport in Mali on January 17. Photo: Jerome Delay/AP

THE United Nations Security Council on December 20 gave its unanimous approval for an African-led military intervention force to be urgently dispatched to Mali. The goal assigned to it was the reunification of the country. Mali was effectively split into two after the northern part fell into the hands of a coalition of rebel forces in March 2012.

Initially, the goal of the rebel forces, then led by the National Front for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), was the creation of a state for the Tuaregs—a nomadic community distinct from their Arab and African compatriots. But another group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), which had jointly fought with the MNLA to oust the Malian army from the North, soon gained the upper hand. The MUJWA is dominated by the radical Islamist organisation Ansar Dine and is said to have close links with Al Qaeda.

While the ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) intervention force for Mali was being organised, France, the former colonial master, sent in its own military force. France has a history of neocolonial interventions in Africa. Among them was the prominent role it played in orchestrating the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. The unfolding events in Mali are in a way connected to the fall of Qaddafi. Tuareg fighters, known for their loyalty to Qaddafi, were allowed to take or loot sophisticated arms from Libyan armouries. Immediately after Qaddafi’s fall, these fighters turned their attention to Mali, where they used their military prowess and sophisticated weaponry to score victories over the Malian army.

France intervened militarily in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 to remove a recalcitrant President from office. That job, too, should have been left to the African Union or to ECOWAS. The latest French military intervention on the African continent was undertaken hurriedly as the Malian army was forced to abandon the key town of Diabaly in the centre of the country. With the Malian army in retreat, there were fears in the international community that the Islamist fighting force would march all the way to the capital, Bamako, and create an Al Qaeda emirate in sub-Saharan Africa. French President Francois Hollande claimed that the decision to deploy French troops saved the Malian government from falling. “Mali would have been captured entirely and the terrorists would not only have been in a position of strength in Mali, but also would have been able to put pressure on all countries of West Africa,” he said.

French aircraft and helicopter gunships were initially put into operation to drive out the rebels from Diabaly and other towns in the north. Already more than a hundred people, mostly civilians, have been reported killed as a result of French aerial attacks. On January 16, the French government ordered a ground invasion in Timbuktu and Gao and other strongholds of the rebels. The Islamists will, in all probability, withdraw to their mountain stronghold near the Algerian border and wait for an opportune time to strike. They have already sworn to target French interests on the continent and in Europe. An Islamist group calling itself the “Masked Brigade” attacked a gas refinery in eastern Algeria near the Libyan border and took 41 Western nationals, including French citizens, hostage. A British and an Algerian national were killed in the attack.

John Cherian

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