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January 14, 2013 6:28 pm
French military interventions in Africa have a chequered history. But it was hard to see how Paris could avoid the latest one. France has for months been urging international intervention to help Mali defeat Islamist militias, some of them allied to al-Qaeda.
Already, the militias control nearly two-thirds of Mali. Last week they were forging a path south. Divided and in disarray, the national army was crumbling in the face of better-armed adversaries. The risks of allowing the rebel advance to proceed – potentially to the capital, Bamako – were great.
Mali was fast becoming a launch pad for regional jihad a few hours’ aeroplane ride from Europe. It was drawing Islamists from across the region and further afield. Aligned with criminal networks trafficking cocaine and other contraband, they were harnessing significant resources with which to prepare for conflict. Their control of such a vast territory was eating away at west African stability, threatening the economic revival under way. Yet, aside from France, no country was willing or ready to step in.
Ideally, when the Islamists went on the offensive, an African intervention force sanctioned by the UN Security Council would have stepped forward. Instead, west African troops will probably trickle in behind the French. This is unfortunate. France’s involvement complicates efforts to promote regional co-operation. At the same time, it provides propaganda that will help Islamists to internationalise the conflict. French commercial interests and 60,000 citizens across the region are now potential targets. Of course, France’s intervention might fail. On Monday, Islamists had opened a new front en route to the capital.
If France is to avoid becoming embroiled long-term, it should impress upon Mali’s interim government the need to draw northern fighters into compromise and to isolate extremists. Until the coup last March, Mali had been a rare functioning democracy in the region. But successive governments have marginalised the north of the country – where the rebellion started.
Any settlement for the north should, meanwhile, be underpinned by a national framework for the return of constitutional rule. As for the army, it needs to be reunified and trained.
Finally, there must be international commitment to financing the regional intervention if it is to get off the ground. France may be forced into the lead for now. But it would be better for Mali if it could retreat backstage soon.
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