Last week, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to send some 12,500 peacekeeping troops to Mali to take over from the more than 4,000 French forces that had been dispatched there since mid-January. That dramatic French military intervention was ostensibly to save its former colony from being over-run by Al Qaeda-linked jihadists, who had moved southwards from the northern half of the country and were allegedly posing a threat to the Francophile government in the capital, Bamako.
For the past three months, French Special Forces, backed up by Mirage and Rafale fighter jets along with Gazelle helicopter gunships, have been retaking the key northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, and pushing the jihadist rebels into the remote northern desert hinterland bordering Algeria. President Francois Hollande initially said the French mission was to «clear the country of terrorists» and that his troops would stay as long it takes to achieve that objective.
However, with the death of a French soldier this week from combat in northern Mali and with ongoing suicide bomb and landmine attacks on French-backed Malian army personnel, it is far from certain that the rebel forces have been decisively routed. There is good reason to believe that the militants have made a tactical withdrawal from their former city bases and have simply gone to ground in remote desert areas to re-launch future offensives.
Nevertheless, President Hollande last week asserted that the French mission is complete in Mali. His defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian during a tour of northern Mali in recent days described the situation as a «post-war stabilization».
That is why, it is claimed, the French now want to «hand the baton» over to the UN peacekeeping force, which is due to take over in July, around the time of scheduled nationwide elections in Mali.
The question is: is the military situation in Mali as comfortable as the French government is maintaining or is something else going on?
There is good reason to contend that after piling into Mali to shore up its strategic interests, the French quickly found themselves with an economically unsustainable military operation.
What the French have seemingly managed to pull off is to offload the military and financial burden of Mali on to the international community, but at the same time Paris stands to gain from renewed colonial influence in the resource-rich West African country.
The rapid deployment of French forces in Mali beginning on 11 January under the title Operation Serval has so far cost the Paris government €200 ($260) million. More than three months after the French deployment, there is still no sign that a planned African-led military force formed by the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) was in a position to take over security responsibilities in Mali.
Last December, the UN Security Council had given the green light for the ECOWAS force comprising some 6,000 troops to supposedly restore order in Mali following the military coup in the country back in March 2012. That coup deposed democratically elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré, in Bamako. But it also inadvertently empowered an old secessionist campaign in the northern half of the country led by secular Tuareg rebels and an assortment of Islamist militias. The rebellion against the Francophile regime in Bamako then declared in April 2012 the northern region to be the independent state of Azawad – the name for a historic homeland.
It was clear at the end of last year that the French in particular were agitating for a sooner deployment of the ECOWAS force in Mali «to restore order» than the scheduled date of September 2013. French officials at the UN and in Paris began emphasizing that the Islamist element of the rebellion in northern Mali posed a global security threat. President Hollande asserted that intervention in Mali was urgent to safeguard the security of Europe from Al Qaeda-linked groups operating out of the African country.
On 11 January, France appeared to take even its close NATO allies, the US and Britain, by surprise when it flew in thousands of paratroopers to Sevare in central Mali and its Mirage and Rafale fighter jets started pounding rebel strongholds across northern Mali. French leaders portrayed their forces as «liberators» who were «merely» stepping in to speed-up deployment of ECOWAS troops from Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad, Ghana, Niger and Nigeria.
But three months on, it was becoming clear that the ECOWAS force was nowhere near ready to take up its assigned role in Mali, with one Pentagon official Michael Sheehan deprecating the ECOWAS contingency earlier this month as «completely incapable».
Meantime, the escalating cost of the French military intervention in Mali – $260 million so far – has dovetailed with the alarming fiscal position of the French economy. This month the European Commission singled out France for its yawning trade and budget deficits as posing a threat to the entire Eurozone project. France – the second largest economy in the EU behind Germany – is the only EU state which has seen a continued widening in its deficits over the past three months. The ballooning French national debt now represents 90 per cent of its GDP and has compelled the increasingly unpopular Hollande government to announce new tax rises amounting to €6 ($7.8) billion over the next year as a desperate measure to rein in its budget deficit.
At the rate of military spending in Mali, the French government was looking at a total bill of over $1bn for the remaining year – if it was to continue shouldering the burden of military operations. In the context of France’s stagnating economy, that represents an unsustainable outlay for the Elysèe Palace and a political abyss for Hollande.
That fiscal crunch would explain why French foreign minister Laurent Fabius began announcing a drastic troop drawdown in Mali at the beginning of this month as «a priority». It would also explain why French diplomats at the UN started pushing for the Security Council to vote for the unexpected deployment of the 12,500-strong peacekeeping force in Mali.
Having realized that the ECOWAS contingency was not going to be able to relieve the French from an ever-costly intervention, it seems that Paris quickly moved to offload the military task of Mali to the UN Blue Helmet peacekeepers. In that way, France would no longer be accountable for the expense of ongoing operations – the international community is.
Even though Russia voted last week for the new UN peacekeeping force in Mali, Moscow’s ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin expressed concerns over the assigned role. He said: «We are especially alarmed by the growing shift towards the force aspects of UN peacekeeping». Churkin added: «There must be a clear division between peacekeeping and peace enforcement».
The conventional role of UN Blue Helmets is to uphold ceasefires in conflict zones. But in Mali, there is no ceasefire to uphold. The country is still in the grip of a French-led counterinsurgency – as the recent spate of French and Malian army combat deaths show. The disturbing implication is that the UN so-called peacekeepers will be functioning as an adjunct of the French and Malian military. The latter is deeply resented in northern Mali for past human rights violations, being seen as a repressive arm of the regime in Bamako, which lacks legitimacy among the northern populace.
In the new arrangement, however, French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that more than 1,000 French troops are to remain in Mali alongside the UN Blue Helmets and whatever force the ECOWAS countries may eventually muster. The estimated cost of the forthcoming UN peacekeeping force is put at $800 million over the next year of its mandate, footed by the UN, not Paris.
Defence minister Le Drian said the French forces will continue hunting down northern rebels and that the UN peacekeepers are to function as «stabilizing the country». The UN troops will be armed and although they are not mandated to «chase» rebels, French officials said that they are expected to «dismantle terrorist cells» and to «prevent the return» of ousted militants. That hardly sounds like «peacekeeping» and rather more like «counterinsurgency» a la French objectives.
In tandem with the military effort, France is taking the lead role in shaping up the political transition in Mali in which the Francophile Bamako government will regain authority over the erstwhile secessionist northern territory – albeit with a bit of politically correct reconciliation thrown into the melange. The primary role of France in reconstituting Mali’s national polity smacks of a new era of neocolonialist tutelage over its former colony, which gained nominal independence in 1960. France’s renewed presence in Mali will thus give it marked advantages in the anticipated exploitation of the West African’s as-yet untapped natural resources of oil, gas, minerals, gold and uranium.
Many observers have speculated that it was these strategic interests that were the real reasons for France’s hasty intervention in Mali. The purported motive of «saving Mali from Al Qaeda-linked terrorists» was merely the cover story for what is in fact a neo-imperialist agenda.
Other factors tend to substantiate this thesis. Firstly, the alacrity with which thousands of French forces were deployed at the seeming drop of a hat to Mali in January contrasts with the unwieldy deployment of the ECOWAS contingency and the next three more months for the UN Blue Helmets to be put in place. That strongly indicates that France had an advanced well-honed intervention plan at the ready when it was sprung in January. In other words, the French plan was not a putative spontaneous reaction to «save Mali» simply at the «surprise request» by the Bamako government – as Paris claims.
Secondly, the purported enemy in Mali comprising Al Qaeda-linked jihadists are the very same type of militia and fanatical ideology that France and its NATO partners are supporting in Syria to overthrow the government of President Bashar Al Assad. So, France is working with jihadists in Syria, but somehow the same kind of jihadists in Mali are a «mortal threat to Europe»…
This brings us back to the more plausible scenario; that Mali is a French neo-colonial intervention based on furthering strategic political and economic interests. That agenda is, needless to say, clandestine and criminal, way beyond any UN mandate. But what the French government has succeeded in doing is to offload the military effort and cost for its neo-imperialism in West Africa to the auspices of the UN.
In so doing, France has corrupted the authority of the UN and its supposed peacekeeping function. France unleashes its «chiens de guerre» in Africa and it gets the rest of the world to pay for the privilege. Bien sur, c’est magnifique.