January 21, 2013 6:28 pm

Hollande pressed to spell out Mali objectives

Now that the bloody hostage crisis in Algeria is over, attention in France is swinging back to the scale of the task facing President François Hollande and his commitment of French troops to rid Mali of Islamist militants.

In the grim logic of such events, Paris believes the Algerian attack will help rally international support for its decision this month to intervene militarily in Mali, Algeria’s neighbour, when columns of jihadi fighters began striking south from their stronghold in the north to threaten the capital, Bamako.

Mr Hollande said the Algerian crisis was an “additional argument” to justify his insistence that allowing Mali to fall into the hands of Islamist groups would pose a terrorist threat not just to the region but to western countries as well.

“It vindicated the French decision,” said Zaki Laïdi, a professor at Sciences Po university. “Of course, we know that [the Algerian attack] was prepared before the French intervention in Mali but it revealed the importance of the challenge in the region. Other European nations reacted strongly when they realised their nationals were hostages.”

That position is broadly supported across the political spectrum in France, with a poll on Sunday showing 65 per cent public backing for the Mali operation. But it has not prevented the emergence of some voices in opposition ranks concerned by the open-ended commitment declared by the government for the Mali operation – and the fact that France is alone among its western allies in shouldering the military burden.

Jean-Francois Copé, the new president of the centre-right UMP party, said on Monday that what he called the “isolation” of France was “a big problem” and he called on Mr Hollande to set out more clearly the aims of the operation. “The president must say under what criteria he will consider the objectives have been achieved,” he said in a television interview.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defence minister, spelt out a four-stage plan on the weekend. He said the aim was firstly to halt the progress south of the rebels. On Monday he said Malian and French forces had achieved an important success in retaking the central towns of Diabaly and Douentza.

Mali map

The second stage was aerial attacks by French fighter jets on the militants’ rear bases in the north of Mali.

The third objective was to ensure the security of Bamako and Malian government institutions, along with the safety of its 6,000 French residents. The final and most ambitious aim was “to help Malian forces restructure and enable the organisation of [a west African military force] to achieve the total reconquest of Mali”.

Mr Hollande said: “I am often asked, ‘how long will this take?’ I answer, because it is the sole truth I know, ‘as long as necessary. The necessary time to defeat terrorism in that part of Africa.’ ”

There has been some attempted point-scoring from UMP figures suggesting that Mr Hollande, who came to power last May without a significant record in foreign affairs, has not rallied international support as adroitly as did Nicolas Sarkozy, his predecessor, in launching the Nato-led intervention in Libya in 2010.

Brice Hortefeux, a former UMP minister close to Mr Sarkozy, said: “The diplomatic and logistical support has been measured up to now and demonstrates a real lack of preparation.”

But the deeper concern is that the promise to achieve “the total reconquest” of Mali carries the risk for France of becoming indefinitely embroiled in an Afghanistan-like conflict, without effective military allies. Alain Juppé, a former prime minister and foreign minister under Mr Sarkozy, said last week: “I am afraid that we may become involved in a spiral that we will have trouble controlling.”

The problems have been well canvassed: the weak and divided state of both Mali’s political institutions and its army; severe doubts over the abilities of the west African force that is now hurriedly being assembled; the difficulty of combating the heavily armed, highly mobile rebels over a territory more than twice the size of France.

Mr Laïdi said he expected France would have to stay in Mali “for a long time”, given the military and political challenges. The need to go it alone militarily demonstrated the weakness of the EU’s defence policy. “But we are not isolated politically or diplomatically,” he said. “I don’t see any [international] opposition to French intervention.”

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