There is a massive, historic upheaval gong on—one chaotic Islamic country after another--spanning more than 7000 miles of the globe—a huge tectonic shift—from Western Africa to the Western frontiers of China.
France is not responsible for “breaking” Mali. The country was already a West African basket case long before the French intervention.
But, as things now stand, France “owns” the shattered country. And there’s no crazy glue in sight.
In other words, France, which enraged many Americans by refusing to participate in the invasion of Iraq, now finds itself stuck with the results of their own intervention.
Hollande made his conundrum clear during his visit this past Saturday to Mali when he announced that France “will stay as long as necessary, but its purpose is not to stay.”
Not that different a straddle from the problem the U.S. faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But to whom does France hand-off the ominous situation it confronts in Mali?
Which was why it was overthrown. Somehow, elections are going to have to be organized, which also means negotiating some kind of settlement with the Tuaregs of Northern Mali, who have been demanding attention from the central government for decades. It was their rebellion that was hijacked by the jihadis-some of whom were linked with Al Qaeda.
But what to do about those jihadis? In fact, the big question now, is where they hell are they? As far as is known, they took very few casualties. In most cases, without a shot being fired from the ground, they evaporated back into the desert or from wherever they came--often long before the French troops arrived.
But they’ve still got their arms, their jihadist ideals, and their income flowing in from traditional smuggling activities.
So, do they just disappear or launch hit-and-run attacks against troops sent to hunt them down? Or wait until most of the French pull out?
Up till now, the majority of French still back Hollande’s Mali expedition. But what happens if the French army—which lost just one soldier in the entire three week campaign--what happens if they start taking casualties, or more French civilians get taken hostage by jihadi groups? Or French targets elsewhere are attacked?
What happens if the French-backed Malien army commits more outrages on the civilian population? What happens if the French feel obliged to overstay their visit, and—like the U.S. in Iraq or Afghanistan--become viewed as occupiers rather than liberators.
The French have been talking about turning over frontline duties to African troops. But the Malien army is woefully trained, and equipped, its officers are said to be up to their helmets in cigarette and drug smuggling, often in cahoots with the radical Islamic groups they were supposed to be keeping at bay.
There are also thousands of other African troops from West Africa, who have been arriving in dribs and drabs in various states of readiness and training. They also lack weapons, logistics support, skill in desert fighting, and, above all, money to pay for their operations.
[Indeed some countries volunteer for such operations because it’s a great way to have someone else pick up the tab for their own over bloated armies.]
So, apart from training those troops, who’s going to pick up the tab? Again, France finds itself scanning the horizon for help.
Earlier this week, the President of the Ivory Coast announced at a donors’ conference in Ethiopia that the price tag for the “African-led International Support Mission to Mali” would be $950 million. That’s to cover not just military deployment and logistics, but humanitarian assistance, and at least the down payment on future development.
But the U.S. is providing pilotless drones to track the rebels. And the problem is that to be effective, those drones will also have to be armed with missiles to take out the rebels they track down.
What happens as the inevitable cases of collateral damage start rolling in?
Indeed Prime Minister David Cameron, delivered one of the most pessimistic verdicts on the situation, when, during a recent visit to Algeria, he declared Britain’s determination to deal with “the terrorism threat” in Mali. “It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months, and it requires a response that…has an absolutely iron resolve…”
Or, as one retired French colonel blogged, “war against non-state organizations is a war of Sisyphus. We’re in the Sahel for a long time.”