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Mali in Focus, Part Three: A Dangerous Show of Force from a Former Colonial Power

[French defense minister Jean Yves Le Drian addresses reporters during a press conference held at the defense ministry in Paris, Tuesday 15 January 2013. Map at left shows the operations zone in Mali. France carried out new airstrikes overnight against Islamist fighters in central Mali. Image by Remy de la Mauviniere/AP Photo.] [French defense minister Jean Yves Le Drian addresses reporters during a press conference held at the defense ministry in Paris, Tuesday 15 January 2013. Map at left shows the operations zone in Mali. France carried out new airstrikes overnight against Islamist fighters in central Mali. Image by Remy de la Mauviniere/AP Photo.]

[This article is the final of a three-part series featuring different perspectives on the recent developments in Mali. Previously published: "Mali in Focus, Part One: The Jihadist Offensive Revisited" and "Mali in Focus, Part Two: A War That Threatens the Entire Region"]

Broad political consensus in the domestic political sphere, support from the international community, and the urgency of the situation due to the rapid advance of Islamist militias—together, at first glance, these factors seem to justify French military intervention in Mali. Behind the alleged legitimacy of "Operation Serval,” however, France’s role is ridden with gray areas and contradictions due to the inconsistency of objectives and the potentially disastrous consequences for the entire Sahel zone as a result of such military engagement.

The Malian “Demand for Intervention”

The first justification for French military intervention in Mali, launched on 11 January, was the request for military aid against the onslaught of the Islamist group Ansar Eddine led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, with elements of support from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The attack was launched against the town of Konna in the southern half of the country.

Undoubtedly, it is impossible to accuse France of having acted solely on its own initiative, as it responded directly to a request from the acting President of Mali, Dioncounda Traoré. The request was formulated ​​in a letter addressed to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, and French President, François Hollande. 

This argument, however, assumes Traoré’s legitimacy and evades any questioning of the representativeness and actual political weight of the interim president in the context of troubled democratic transition. A significant portion of the Malian civil society and political class considers Traoré illegitimate, insofar as he remains a "hostage" of the military. 

During the days leading up to the first French air strikes, Bamako was at a boiling point and Malian institutions were on the brink of another upheaval. Political groups supporting the former junta of Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo had launched a series of demonstrations with a strong following that were in favor of organizing a national dialogue aiming to challenge the interim authority. They also reaffirmed their opposition to foreign military intervention, calling for the recovery of the North exclusively by the Malian army. 

As noted in French newspaper, Le Monde’s, special envoy in Bamako, official power seemed on the verge of falling. "The toppling of the fragile local authorities who where led by Dioncounda Traoré seemed “practically inevitable” (pratiquement programmé) said a close associate of the President. According to the same source, the military would have even considered stopping it on the night of January 9 to 10, the eve of the Islamist coalition’s taking of Konna,” writes Jean-Philippe Rémy in Le Monde. These elements, if confirmed, would support the interpretation of the French intervention as a means of preserving a contested regime in extremis, yet nevertheless, favorable to an external military force.

Supporters of France’s war also tend to elide the fact that despite the resistance and hostility against "bandits" and "terrorists," it could be, as suggested by several researchers in northern Mali, that "popular support for Islamists is deeper than we imagine." Relationships between people and the different Islamist groups are generally viewed through the lens of religious oppression, atrocities, torture, and other human rights violations. Nevertheless, the political and religious forms of organization introduced by the jihadist groups, as well as the economic redistribution of resources coming from contraband and trafficking, could be perceived by the populations of the North as an element of order, justice, and stability in areas neglected by the central government of Mali. 

A Questionable Interpretation of the United Nation Security Council’s Resolution 

In terms of international law, the justification of French intervention stems from an interpretation of United Nations resolution 2085, adopted on 22 December 2012. The resolution authorizes the deployment of a multilateral military force, the International Support Mission to Mali (MISMA), mobilized under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). 

Despite the support of the international community and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), two discrepancies can be observed between France’s actions and the original spirit of the UN resolution. On the one hand, resolution 2085 initially stipulated, according to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that the operation "will be conducted exclusively with African combat troops and strong mobilization of the European Union with regard to finances and logistics." However, France’s premature initiation of the operation implies that currently, only French troops are involved in the fighting, arriving to support the Malian army who had faced repeated advances from Islamist fighters. The terms of the French intervention continue to depart from the strict framework of resolution 2085, as the multilateral ECOWAS force has not been deployed on the ground. 

On the other hand, it is important to remember that resolution 2085 focused primarily on advancing political negotiations and establishing a process of dialogue and reconciliation, in addition to military deployment. It is clear that the French operation, justified as an "emergency situation," gives de facto priority to the management of the crisis by force, and relegates the prospects of a politically negotiated solution to the background. The complexity of the situation in northern Mali, and the imbrication of various interests tied to claims of Tuareg and Islamist groups have been reduced to a simple opposition between France and the "terrorists," with whom no negotiation is possible.

What Political Legitimacy?

During the French Army's launch of "Serval Operation," a consensus emerged on the French domestic political stage. The representatives of the left-wing majority party (PS) and the right-wing opposition (UMP), as well as the center (MoDem) and the far right (FN), have mostly supported François Hollande’s initiative. Most French media have also taken a position in favour of the intervention, which was notably qualified as a "choice of the lesser evil" by the daily Le Monde

Only a few dissenting voices within the Left and the Green parties have gone against the decision of the Head of State, condemning the launching of a military engagement of France in Mali, which François Hollande had not brought before the Government or Parliament for discussion. In an op-ed published on 13 January, the former Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, also expressed his reservations about the "apparent haste" of the operation and his concerns about the re-use of the "war against terror” rhetoric.

Beyond the criticism of the decision-making process that led to the French military engagement and the questionable legitimacy of an intervention conducted in the name of the “war against terror,” there are also contradictions between Hollande’s alleged desire to break from the neo-colonial politics, as claimed during his election campaign, and the reality of his recent actions.

More specifically, François Hollande had declared: that he did not want to behave as "Africa’s policeman,” that he sought to abandon troubled relations related to "Françafrique,"[1] and that he would privilege multilateral action under the aegis of the United Nations, letting African countries take responsibility for their own security.  For the Head of State to commit an isolated France to an intervention in Mali directly contradicts his previous commitments, and inevitably forces him to adopt an interventionist posture. The Algerian press particularly denounced this attitude, which many voices in Algeria have argued can be likened to a form of neo-colonialism.

For example, the editorial in the 13 January edition of the Algerian daily Liberté denounces this France that has "decided to ignore UN resolutions to go to war against terrorism in the Sahel. It did not resist the epidermal temptation to return to its former domain to show everyone that it is the only one who knows what is best for Malians, their former colonized peoples.” 

Of course, President Hollande denies these charges. "France liberates. France has not a single interest in Mali, it has no economic interest in Mali to defend, it serves for peace," he vowed to the press on 16 January. There are nearly fifty subsidiaries and majority-owned French companies, mostly based in Bamako, employing approximately two thousand employees. The demographic links between France and its former colony also remain significant. Mali has about five thousand French nationals, while one hundred thousand Malians live in France. But more importantly, northern Mali borders Niger and Mauritania, two former French colonies who have closer economic relations with France, and are also vulnerable in the face of the jihadists’ actions.

Objectives and Means 

Since the operation’s launch, France’s goals for the war have seemed uncertain.  After proclaiming the need to ensure the security of French citizens residing in Mali, the government turned towards a hawkish discourse, invoking its response to “aggression,” and the need to halt the progression of armed Islamist groups suspected of proceeding towards Bamako.  Then, in reference to the jihadist groups, François Hollande announced that it was a question of “destroying them, imprisoning them if possible, and making sure that they could cause no more harm.” At the same time, he underscored the principle of re-establishing Malian sovereignty “over the entirety of its territory.” 

Similarly, no precise definition of the military targets and objectives has been suggested. The columns of Islamist combatants who had crossed the line of demarcation between the North and South were initially targeted. The French air raids were then extended to the jihadists’ lower bases and to urban zones, situated several hundred kilometers from the Konna region, where they launched their first offensive.  Now, we are witnessing a massive deployment of ground troops.

The terms of the French intervention have surpassed all the initial limits and frames that had been set. Although Minister of Defense, Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced on 24 December that France would not go into combat and that a “European contingent of four hundred men” would compose the Malian army, whereas ECOWAS would lead the military combat, exactly the opposite has happened. The airstrikes were followed by the deployment of French troops, which have been continuously reinforced and expected to reach 2,500 men.

The Creation of a “Sahelistan,” or the Risk of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy 

France finds itself heavily engaged in a military operation of unclear dimensions, “which will last as long as necessary,” according to President Hollande. This inevitably calls to mind the intervention in Afghanistan, where France has only just withdrawn its armed forces, and where the results were mixed, to say the least.

“We have had Afghanistan, there should not be a Sahelistan,” Minister of Foreign, Affairs Laurent Fabius declared in June 2012. Ironically enough, by getting involved in a long asymmetric war, France risks adding to the instability of the countries in the Sahel and of inciting jihadist militancy, as well as anti-imperial sentiment. Experience has already shown that since 2001, military operations in the name of a “war against terror” have actually worsened the problems they were fighting against, as opposed to eradicating them.   

The recent increase in testimonies, in part confirmed by the International Federation on Human Rights (FIDH,) expose the violent acts committed in northern Mali by soldiers in Mali’s regular army – supported by France. These acts, committed against people suspected of collaborating with the armed Islamist groups, could lead to increased support for jihadist groups and exacerbate existing ethnic tensions.

We should also remember that the current crisis in Mali is one of the direct consequences of French intervention in Libya in 2011. Several thousand Tuareg militants recruited as mercenaries in Gaddafi’s army returned to Mali after the fall of the Libyan regime, looting and circulating stocks of arms across the Sahel. They are now one of the factors destabilizing the region and contributing to the strength of the militias. 

While cautioning against the risk of the creation of a “Sahelistan” and the disastrous consequences for the entire region, France is paradoxically engaged in an operation in the Sahel.  Without a profound reorientation in strategy, this will likely provoke a new military mobilization and strengthen the force of a militant jihadism that is fueled by the actions of the ex-colonial power.

[This article was originally published in French and translated to English by Allison McManus and Mickael Vogel.]


[1] This term refers to the economic, military, and political relations between France and its former African colonies, through local networks of influence. The concept refers to the collusion between French and African political elites, to corruption, and retro-commission scandals, but also through more direct interventionism, such as support for coups or “peacekeeping operations”.

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