Friday, January 25, 2013

Mali: A Defeat Waiting to Happen...

French soldiers prepare for a patrol in Mali (AP/Reuters)
The joke goes that if you Google “French Victories,” the search engine will snarkily ask you if you meant to search for “French Losses.” While this sort of comment rankles many French patriots (I'm part French myself), the truth is that ever since the 17th century, France’s track record of winning wars has been extremely poor. And once again, it appears that France has involved itself in a war that it simply cannot win, this time in the North African nation of Mali.

Into Mali
On Wednesday, January 16, French soldiers launched an extensive air and ground campaign against Islamist rebels in Mali. The Guardian reported on the 16th that France launched air strikes against Islamist camps and mobile forces in Mali, its former colony, to stop a rebel offensive and "safeguard" Mali's existence. Troops from Nigeria and other regional powers will join about 1,700 French troops involved in the operation, part of a contingent expected to reach 2,500 soldiers. President François Hollande said France intended to "destroy" the Islamists or take them captive if possible.

These Islamists are al-Qaeda linked fighters that took control of the northern deserts of Mali early last year. The militants are well armed and well trained: Reuters notes that many are coming directly from the US conflicts in the Middle East. Determined to hold onto their gains in the country, the Islamists have warned that French troops will become bogged down for years.
The people of Mali are welcoming the French soldiers with open arms: the Islamists have imposed harsh Sharia law upon the region, cutting off hands and feet for minor crimes in addition to desecrating the sacred religious shrines in the fabled city of Timbuktu (yes, it does actually exist). The citizens have feared for their lives, worried of the potential damage the volatile terror groups might wreak. Mahamadou Abdoulaye, 35, a truck driver who fled from the northern Gao region of Mali into Niger, said the Islamists new recruits were both armed and inexperienced: a dangerous combination.
"We were all afraid. Many young fighters have enrolled with them recently. They are newly arrived, they cannot manage their weapons properly. There's fear on everybody's face," he said.

Nuclear Concerns
Unfortunately, there is more at stake here than meets the eye. Although Mali was originally a French colony, this invasion is not merely a “mother nation looking out for her children.”  As Mark Tran of The Guardian notes, the West and Mali's neighbours fear that the Islamists, who took over northern Mali, an area the size of France of desert and rugged mountains, will use the country to destabilise the rest of west Africa, including neighbouring Niger, France's main source of uranium for its nuclear industry.If the Islamists gain complete control of Mali, turning the nation into a stronghold, the potential that terror groups such as al-Qaeda In the Maghreb (AQIM) will use the area as a base for launching international attacks is huge. The potential that AQIM will use the area as a foundation for a takeover of Niger’s vast supplies of uranium is even greater. As J.G. Gilmour explains, the AQIM has direct ties to the Nigerian terror group, Boko Haram. Both groups have sworn to “expel all westerners in the Sahel and establish an Islamic theocracy with poor countries which have limited resources and weak military forces to react to their insurgency operations.”  The AQIM is hoping that terrorism activities will destabilize such countries by recruiting extremists to their networks and cells. Ultimately, this destabilization puts France’s almost unending supply of uranium at risk. This uranium, as activist Adam Cooper reports, is much of the reason for initiating this offensive in Mali.

Without an End
If France has not learned from the US example in nations like Afghanistan or Iraq, then they will learn soon enough that fighting terror groups is utterly different from fighting a conventional war. As the US realized in Iraq, enemy soldiers may be anywhere, and they have no qualms about hiding among the civilian population.

French Army chief Edouard Guillaud said France's air strikes, involving Rafale and Mirage jet fighters, were being hampered because militants were using the civilian population as a shield.
"We categorically refuse to make the civilian population take a risk. If in doubt, we will not shoot," he said.
This honor of the division between militant and civilian is the great weakness of Western nations attempting to eradicate a terror group from a region. Nations such as the US, Britain, and France come to the conflict with rules of war and the terrorists capitalize upon those restrictions. Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian acknowledges the difficulties facing France. "It's tough. We were aware from the beginning it would be a very difficult operation.”

Any five year old will tell you that it is almost impossible to play with someone who refuses to respect the rules of the game. If the experiences of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan are any indication, this holds true not only for Candyland as it does for war. France may maintain the moral high ground in this conflict, but will receive a defeat in return.