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High noon in the Sahara


Saturday 12 January 2013

Wishing won't make it so – certainly not when dealing with Islamists fighters who have over the past year shown themselves happy to kidnap foreigners, to stone and kill their own people, to amputate limbs in punishment, and to destroy ancient world-famous cultural sites.

For nine months, African, Western and UN diplomats have been preparing a military response to the loss of northern Mali to Islamists last spring. In December, they agreed a plan – to deploy 3,300 African troops to fight alongside the Malian army. The EU, meanwhile, would stay behind the lines, sending about 200 trainers to improve Mali's 7,000 or so troops. The timeline? Several reports in December quoted diplomats as expecting the military intervention to start only in September or October.

In the space of three days, that planning and diplomacy has been upended and the notion that the timeline can be measured in months has evaporated. The leaders of the few thousand Islamists who now control an area bigger than Afghanistan (and perhaps less hospitable) have evidently decided that attack is the best form of defence.

On Thursday (9 January), the Islamists – who are thought to be led by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – ended a ceasefire that had held along 500km frontline since spring 2011, headed south and seized a town used as a forward base for the Malian army, Konna. About 55km farther on, at Sévaré, lay a big army base and 15km beyond that another strategic – and very large – prize: Mopti, a city of 100,000 people and an airstrip. 

So what would happen? Would the Malian army take on the challenge by itself? Would African troops come to the rescue, as planned, albeit rather earlier than expected? No. The same day, Mali's president, Dioncounda Traoré, asked France to intervene. The next day, France's President François Hollande announced, in a brief speech, that French troops had gone to the aid of Malian troops. France did not respond to a similar request by the Central African Republic over the New Year, but an Islamist threat is something else: even in 2009, three years before the Islamists seized northern Mali, French officials were describing AQIM as France's number-one concern in the whole of Africa (according to a leaked diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks).

This morning's press conference by the French defence ministry, and other reports, suggest that the French have launched air strikes (from a base in Chad) and have deployed several dozen commandos to Sévaré and hundred troops to the capital, Bamako. The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said that the Islamists had abandoned Konna and been pushed back “several dozen kilometres”. He did not give casualty figures for the Islamists, but a Malian military official quoted by AFP says that dozens, possibly a hundred, Islamists had been killed in the clashes. That would be a sizeable proportion of the 800-900 fighters estimated to have been involved in the attack on Konna.

Whether Traoré turned to African leaders, who after all are supposed to be preparing troops for deployment, before turning to France, which was supposed merely to be contributing to the EU's training mission, has not been said. But the president of the African Union (and Benin), Thomas Boni Yayi, could hardly have been more relieved  to see the French: “I'm over the moon”, he said about the French action. The UN-sanctioned mission is supposed to be under the leadership of Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States. Its current president, President Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast, has said that some Ecowas forces will be deployed on Monday. Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaoré today said his country will send 500 troops. That leaves many more soldiers to be despatched, if Ecowas decides that all 3,300 troops in the UN-backed plan need to be brought into Mali immediately. The Malian army said yesterday that Nigeria and Senegal have already sent troops – a notion dismissed the same day by a Senegalese officer quoted by Le Monde. So, one way or another, Africa will soon be intervening militarily, eight months earlier than envisaged.

The question now is whether and how the EU will mobilise itself. Yesterday, the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said that “the European Union ... will accelerate preparations for the deployment of a military mission to Mali to provide training and advice to the Malian forces”. There was no explicit mention of France – or support for its action – anywhere in the statement, though she said that the rebel advances underlined the need for “enhanced and accelerated international engagement” to help restore state authority throughout Mali.

The weeks between now are the next meeting of EU foreign ministers, on 31 January, are likely to be busy. But at least one EU leader clearly thinks this is no longer an issue just for foreign ministers: José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission's president, is tonight (12 January) meeting Hollande in Paris to discuss the crisis.

The UK has offered France its “political support”. Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has said that the EU as a whole needs to throw its support behind France.

But what form might support take? Will Sweden and others conclude as Traoré appears to have done, that Ecowas is currently not up to the task of repelling the Islamists? Will some EU countries send troops to fight with the French? Will the EU limit itself to training others' troops?

The task for French and African troops – and any Europeans who join them – will evidently be hard. A French pilot has already been killed in Mali. The terrain is vast and difficult. The costs and logistical challenges of a military intervention would presumably be big. And the politics would be immensely difficult: on top of AQIM, politicians, diplomats and the military would have to contend with the restiveness of the Tuareg in the north (they have rebelled several times since Mali gained independence from France in 1960) and politics in Bamako, which was thrown into chaos by a coup last March.

But Islamist control of the desert – a base for potential attacks around the region and in Europe – is clearly a huge cause for concern for France and, it thinks, should be for Europe as a whole. Other EU countries might not feel so worried.

But the intervention and the questions that it will throw up will presumably concentrate minds on a big EU summit in December on defence co-operation. In a press conference at the end of December's European Council, the European Council's president, Herman Van Rompuy, chose to highlight a brief discussion that EU leaders had had on defence, emphasising the importance that defence issues will have in 2013. Questions about Europe's military capacity clearly matter a lot to him. With Mali's ‘help', those questions will probably matter a lot more to other policymakers and ordinary Europeans by the end of the year.

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