This past Friday, France finally decided to take charge and intervene to stop the take over of Mali by radical jihadist militants who have controlled the north of the country since last spring. France has conducted a so-far successful bombing campaign against the Islamist bases in large northern towns, notably Gao and the ancient city of Timbuktu. Most recently, France moved ground troops into combat.
First, an overview of the conflict. In January of 2012 Tuareg rebels in the north of the country began a rebellion against the government. The rebel group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) had control of most of the north of the country, which it calls Azawad and claims as an independent country, by April. In March a the Malian government suffered a coup d’état, and in the successive confusion the MNLA, along with its then ally the Islamist group Ansar Dine, managed to seize control of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, the north’s main cities.
The MNLA is a nationalist rebel group, with few or no terrorist or Islamist connections. However, beginning in late spring 2012 the MNLA rebels began to have disagreements with their Islamist allies, leading to the Battle of Gao in June, in which the MNLA and the Islamists fought for control of the city. The MNLA eventually lost control of virtually all of Azawad, and it fell into the hands of Islamist groups, many of them with strong connections to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. The principal Islamist groups in power are the aforementioned Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The UN Security Council voted to allow foreign intervention in Mali. It was agreed that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS, CEDEO in French) would be the force leading the intervention. ECOWAS had intended to intervene late in 2013. However, more and more reports of terrorist activities by the Islamists, as well as drug-running and hostage taking to garner funds appeared, and as the Malian army began to weaken and fall back, allowing more and more territory gain by the north, France realised that it was the only power with the willingness and means for an instant intervention. When the Malian government pleaded France for help, French president François Hollande made the most decisive move yet of his presidency, and authorized immediate military intervention.
The intervention has, of course, drawn unfavorable comparisons with the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and even accusations of neo-imperialism by France. Allow me to explain however, why France was justified to intervene, and why it will benefit everyone, except the Islamists. First of all, the presence of self-described terrorist groups on the “doorstep of Europe,” as it has been called, is a situation no one wants. Having these groups in control of Mali would be catastrophic, and a threat to the security of all surrounding countries. Secondly, reports from Azawad have testified that the Islamist have imposed complete Sharia law in the area, something that most Muslims do not want. (It is important to remember here that most Muslims do not share the views of these extremist Islamists). They have disregarded human rights, especially those of women, and have destroyed many ancient monuments in the UNESCO world heritage city of Timbuktu. Lastly, these people threaten to take over all of Mali, and it is likely that they would not respect the rights of the non-Saharan ethnicities in the south.
On the last point, it should be noted that the MNLA accused the south of not respecting the human rights of the northern ethnicities, so I would hazard to say, though I have never been to Mali, that Azawad would be better off independent from Mali. However, that is not the goal of Ansar Dine, AQIM, and MOJWA.
It is unlikely that France will become entrenched in this war, as Hollande has stated his intention to let ECOWAS take over as soon as they are ready. Also, the Malian army still has some might, though it is badly organized, and the MNLA has agreed to side with France, though not with the Malian government. Although France is ‘alone’ in this war, without any of its NATO allies, I personally think this a good thing. As I have said before, I believe NATO to be an American puppet, and I think France would be better off without it.
My last point is this, on the subject of imperialism: During the decolonization frenzy in the 50’s and 60’s, France, like most other European countries, virtually abandoned their colonies. These European countries caused most the problems that their former colonies have, so was complete abandonment really the right rout to take? I want to see France and other former imperial powers having close relations with their former colonies, but translucent ones, not like the françafrique of the previous decades. I believe that weak African nations need big powers looking out for them, making sure to keep governments that the people of these countries support safe from invasions or terrorist rebellions, and cutting of relations with authoritarian governments. And since Mali still has strong cultural ties with France, why should France not be the one to protect the people of Mali?