French intervention in Mali: Avoiding the entanglement trap lies beyond French control.
Algeria possesses the strongest military in the region with experience fighting armed islamist groups within its borders. It has always expressed reservation with respect to a military intervention in Mali. However, its advocacy for political dialogue with the main Islamist group Ansar-Eddine is likely to be reversed following an attack deep within its territory in retaliation for opening its airspace. The attack resulted in numerous hostages constitutes a first for the country. Such installations never suffered even during the troubled 1990s. The distance of the base relative to the Malian border (near In Amenas) is closer to Libya, again reinforcing the relative insignificance of political borders in the region, their porous nature and the potential vastness of the theater of operations.
France has entered the Malian conflict this week following a surprise rebel offensive on the south of the country. The fall of strategic towns in rebel hands and the Malian Military’s inability to contain the assaults prompted the French to mobilize troops and aircraft to stem the rebel advancement towards the capital Bamako. France bombarded rear rebel positions in their stronghold of Gao & Kidal and deployed ground forces around the capital Bamako and the Mopti Province.
The situation bares the hallmarks of a modern conflict: a transnational network of Non-state armed groups fighting a weak governments in an area that stretches across an entire Sahel region with porous borders that are essentially imaginary lines in the sand: a remnant of France’s colonial past.
Commenting on how long his country will take the lead in the campaign “It’s a matter of weeks” declared French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. The government insists that its current presence on the frontline of the conflict is a temporary measure that aims to contain the rebel advance until African troops from ECOWAS are deployed. However, such promises will be hard to keep as factors deciding how the conflict plays out lay beyond the French army’s control. A closer look at the actors, the dynamics of the conflicts, suggest that the French army could easily be lured into deeper involvement if clear and limited objectives that fall within the UN intervention mandate are not maintained.
Due to the logistics and coordination necessary, the original intervention plan did not foresee a deployment of 3,300 regional forces (a number deemed too low by some military quarter) until September 2013. The preemptive assault by Islamist was an attempt to capitalize on this since the capture of significant territory would provide considerable strategic leverage on both the ground and at the negotiating table. As stated previously, this is what precipitated French involvement, refuting earlier assurances by the French President Francois Holland that there would be “no French boots on the ground”. Moreover, French authorities acknowledged that the militants have turned out to be better-armed and equipped than initially thought after a French combat helicopter was downed by the rebels. Current plans anticipate a deployment an additional 2,500 troop.
French Defense minister Le Drian described his country’s action in broader terms such as the eradication of terrorism in the region and has recently acknowledged the likelihood of a lengthy campaign. According to retired French General Vincent Desportes, France is currently pursuing three objectives: the securitization of French nationals and the capital, holding the frontline around Konna (700kms from Bamako), and training troops from Niger, Burkina, Bénin, Togo and Sénégal to recapture the north of Mali.
In the short term, France has for the most part fulfilled the first two; however, the ‘Africanization’ of the intervention through full deployment, coordination and training of Malian and ECOWAS forces in short period of time is a significant endeavor with numerous hurdles. At this point in time the Malian military remains weak, with the French military like to bear the brunt of the work. Furthermore, the deployment of ECOWAS troops likely to arrive this week is also expected to encounter complications due to the premature timing vis-à-vis the initial plans. The conflict has already spilled over into neighboring countries, including the regional power Algeria that suffered an attack on a gas installation on 16 January 2013.
France should not expect much from Algeria. Despite having the strongest capabilities in the region these remain relative to inherently weak states in the Sahel such as Mali. Though direct involvement beyond its borders would provide a boost in capabilities, these remain untested beyond Algeria’s borders, and are likely to be dedicated to reinforcing the securitization of its own borders.
The dangers of France finding itself entangled in a long conflict that stretches across the Sahel are real, and lie beyond its control. Worst case scenarios for France would be the being sucked into its own Afghanistan, or a debacle similar to the US involvement in Somalia. The effect and quality of deploying of ECOWAS troops is a determining factor but remains to be seen. France is better off sticking to limited objectives in the short term or faces the prospects of its own Afghanistan.