Mali: France’s Public Relations Stunt with Sahelo-Saharan Islamists

By Osuolale Alalade

France has played its card well in Mali. It has demonstrated to the world why the so-called African giants cannot be trusted to protect international interests even in their own backyards. It is beginning to gloat in this specious propaganda to explain its heroic and unilateral intervention in northern Mali to protect the territorial integrity of another weak African state. Before then, it had proposed contracting the actual fighting to African forces. It suggested leading the diplomatic aspects of the inevitable confrontation with Algeria and Mauritania on the matter of northern Mali. France’s European allies would stay in the rear base to train Malian forces. As it turned out, the French depended on American satellite intelligence for their most vital air and land operations in the campaign in northern Mali. France would be right in imagining itself as leading the western charge against radical Islamists. The French story line goes: Operation Serval, its code name for the intervention in northern Mali, is a response to the inability of West Africans and black Africa in general, to respond to the assault on the integrity of the Malian state by Arab Islamists who pose a threat to western interests in West Africa. France, again, has to make the sacrifice to stop the spread of Islamists fighters racing from the Sahara to the Atlantic Ocean. France projects itself as the warrior in shining armor attending to the global emergency in northern Mali. These African states cannot guarantee the sanctity of the modicum of international sovereignty that France has granted them in 50 years of their flag independence. Vive La France!!! The French narrative of its reluctant adventure in the Sahara is only for Euro-America.

Africans are not deceived. The real emergency in northern Mali is the threat to French strategic and economic interests in Mali. Uranium, Oil and Gold have significant strategic value.  Indeed, French strategic and economic interests in West Africa are paramount. Before now, France had paid heavy ransom to secure the release of French hostages from the same forces that it must now confront. These funds helped to consolidate the plans of the Islamists and at the same time fuelled political irredentism in northern Mali. Strategic shortsightedness, hubris or whatever it was, France and its allies are learning fresh lessons in taking seriously potential interlocutors, such as the African Union, on matters African. Mali, Niger and other flag independent states that have traditionally been under the grip of France have been doubly victimized. They have faced jeopardy from the rampaging Islamists who have been reinforced by new heavily armed entrants from former Gaddafi forces. They are also victims of France that now pretends to be making sacrifices on their behalf.

The warnings of perceptive African leaders and the African Union on the impact of unintended consequences of the Euro-American campaign for regime change in Libya were ignored. African states had no say when the French, with the complicity of NATO, struck in 2012 against Muammar Gaddafi. So, Africans are not blind to the fact that France and its allies are reaping the whirlwind of the wind that they have sown in the Sahara.  Also, in the global fight against terrorism, it did not matter that much of the funds accessed by the Sahelo-Saharan Islamists are sourced from the Gulf States. Also rich Libya based Algerians reined in by the Muammar Gaddafi were unhinged to finance their trade in drugs and hostage taking of rich westerners wandering the desert without hindrance. These fed into a more sinister political agenda that have now been hijacked by the radical Islamists. The political agenda, backed by Arab states, and especially Gulf States, was to liberate Moors and Touaregs from the rule of black Africans in Mali. Nouakchott, a thriving city for money laundering for these operations and whose Moorish elite is rabidly oppressive of its black majority population, serves as the financial center of the agenda of the Moorish enterprise. Fifty five percent of the mishmash of Moorish and Touareg forces in northern Mali are Mauritanian. The complex situation poses a conundrum, well beyond the capacity of West Africa, indeed black Africa, to cope. West Africa has thus to come to terms, however it can, with a conundrum contrived by numerous forces and factors well beyond its control and well beyond its diplomatic, military and economic might to manage. These were some of the constraints ECOWAS faced in designing an initial concept of operations that secured only a limited approval by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. France stepped in to save its interests.

Yet, given the logic of how the situation has evolved, West Africa had no choice other than to participate in the campaign to reintegrate alienated Malian territory back into the state. West Africa had to accommodate and work with its “old oppressors” to secure its space and peace. Nigeria was corralled by its internal challenges to engage in Mali. In so doing, it served some disinformation, such as claiming to have located the Boko Haram leader Shekau in northern Mali, along the line to placate many doubting Nigerians. To protect Euro-American interests, local strategic factors have been offered for Nigeria’s deployment of troops to Mali against considerable opposition in the country. If President Goodluck Jonathan is to expect help in the fight against Boko Haram at home, Nigeria had to join the larger action against Islamic fundamentalists virtually next door. Some vocal activists have bought into the rationale for Nigeria’s engagement in northern Mali. For some, it is clear that Mali is not Nigeria’s war. Meanwhile, Tchadian forces have been brave fighting alongside the French who have announced plans to chicken out of the desert cauldron. French president Francoise Hollande has indicated that French forces would quit in April 2013. They have in fact begun to withdraw, even before the real mission has begun.

The real war may begin after the disengagement of France from active combat in April 2013. French strategy appears to be to soften the ground and degrade as much operational capability of the Islamists within the shortest time frame. Defense analysts say that the plan of France is to avoid a protracted campaign of attrition in northern Mali. Its operation is thus aimed at killing all the insurgents they can lay their hand on. To aim at wiping out all hideouts in a desert arena of over 1,000,000 sq km would be incredulous, if it did not come from experienced French military strategic planners. This limited French plan is so obviously flawed that a more rational explanation has to be sought for the planned premature withdrawal of French forces. Seen from this angle, the whole military campaign of France in northern Mali comes across as a huge public relations enterprise.

The planned withdrawal of French forces would alter the configuration of the theater, the calculus of the protagonists and the character of the impending war in northern Mali. The French plans work to the advantage of the radical Islamist opponents. The Al Qaeda and its affiliates have demonstrated imagination and resilience in similar situations elsewhere.  This has been amply demonstrated in Iraq, Pakistan and, more poignantly, in Afghanistan. The lesson learned is for France to seek to avoid being trapped in such a scenario. So far, Algerian elements have been veiled in their involvement in what so far has been a strategy of the Islamists in northern Mali to conserve their forces and assets until the French, backed by heavy United States intelligence and logistical collaboration, have quit the stage. That is when the Algerians and the full weight of the military might of the Moorish and Touareg Islamists may be unleashed to achieve optimal impact. The threatened gates of hell would be opened in northern Mali. Meanwhile, even in these early stages, in the strategic confrontation of the Touareg and Moorish Islamists with the more endowed French forces, the French forces have been forced to deploy Mirage fighter jets, helicopter gunships, and armored vehicles firing 105-mm cannons. ECOWAS forces that are expected to hold the recovered territories in northern Mali in the medium to long term do not have the sophisticated armory and capability to do this. France’s game plan therefore has the ring of a hitting and running away from the real challenge. The next phase of the campaign with the French on the sidelines promises to be a protracted guerilla campaign.

The furor over the indiscipline of Malian forces in combat reflects what France intended for the Malian state. This entrenched policy of strategic dependence on Paris worked to the advantage of French backed Forces Nouvelles rebels in Cote d’Ivoire as the General Phillipe Magou led Ivorian army, FANCI, melted like shea butter in the tropical hot sun before the advancing rebels. A weak army in francophone countries has its strategic uses for France. But for now, the inevitable reality is that the next phase of the confrontation with the radical Islamists in northern Mali has to be led by a truly international force. It is some comfort that the extraordinary committee of the ECOWAS defense chiefs is reviewing its concept of operations and the procedures for the transformation of the African led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) into a United Nations operation.  This is a good option to keep the conflict in northern Mali on the international radar. In these exceptional circumstances, Africans can hold their noses and serve as proxies of the old oppressors.

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About africapeacesupport

Former Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral in Guinea-Bissau and Head of UNOGBIS.
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