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France's Intervention In Mali, And The Continental Spillover

The terrorist attack and hostage-taking in neighboring Algeria is just one of the ways that France's intervention in Mali could spread across Africa, and beyond.

PARIS - An unlikely bond unites France's two most recent heads of state, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande: they both gave the green light to interventions in Africa just a few months after taking office.

Sarkozy authorized action in Chad in 2008, and Hollande of course, has taken France into war in Mali this past week.

There is little else in common between the two situations, though both were reminders of the solid relationship between a part of the African continent and France. In 2008, the French air force pounded Chadian rebels who had reached the gates of N’djamena, in order to save “private” Deby. This operation follows the traditional and recurring will to get involved to show France’s support to political leaders contested in their own countries.

When he decided to launch a vast military operation in Mali, led by Special Forces troops, François Hollande made an unprecedented decision in the history of the often rocky relations between France and Africa. It was the retreat of Mali’s military after its defeat against Islamic extremists near the strategic Sévaré airbase that convinced the French government to take action. Fearing those terrorist organizations would head south to take Mali’s capital city of Bamako, Hollande chose to set aside what he'd vowed during the presidential campaign about not getting military involved in Africa anymore.

The risks of this country being under complete jihadist control would have affected every country in the Sahel area in the southern Sahara, and even West Africa, not to mention Western countries worried about attacks on their own soil. (The attack Wednesday by Islamic terrorists, who took Westerns hostage at a gas treatment facility in neighboring Algeria, is already proof of how quickly the conflict can spread.)

Once France decided to intervene in Mali, it had to act swiftly; it is a demonstration that the country is still quite concerned about what happens in its former colonies on matters such as security and territorial integrity. The latter was the pretext that then President François Mitterand used in the mid-1980s when he called upon the troops to drive Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's army out of Chad.

After more than nine months of military status quo, the result of the inexistent action of Mali's transitional government and the failure in mediation in West Africa, the current French intervention deals new cards on the internal and regional level.

True extremists

While this operation is driven by the danger the terrorist organization represents -- being both well-armed and of a notably fanatical Islamist bent -- we have to take into account the risks of getting bogged down and witness long term instability in this part of Africa. One naturally looks at what has happened in Somalia, where violence brewing since the early 1990s has spread across other parts of the Horn of Africa, which remains deeply unstable 20 years later.

The possibility of a conflict stretching over years must be weighed since the armed groups are scattered across the desert along Mali’s northern border with Algeria, and they constantly roam these areas. They have the advantage of knowing the terrain, which gives them a mobility bonus and easy contact with numerous terrorist bases sometimes located outside Mali.

A 2012 United Nations report on the region warned of the dangers of a military operation led by a coalition of Malian troops and members of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States). This report was mainly about the logistical difficulties of fighting on such unusual grounds for a conventional African army.

Even if the details –- length of operation, number of units, compatibility with African allies -- remain a blur, the French intervention will only make sense if it aims at a political solution that includes all of the country’s ethnic groups, including Tuaregs and Arabs.

This agreement would be used as a base for a political system different from the make-believe democracies that have flourished since 1991. The French action should prompt a catharsis allowing the Malian political class to realize that now’s not the time for conflicts over who’s the leader of this country. But it should also be a broader wake-up call to determine the fate of a thousand-year-old nation, whose history and culture is integral to the entire continent.

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