international analysis and commentary

Malicious intent in Mali? American and British views of France’s intervention

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Late February 2013 a US congressional delegation made a one-day visit to the Malian capital, Bamako. Senator Christopher Coons, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations sub-committee on Africa noted that, “US law prohibited direct assistance to Mali’s armed forces” following the March 2012 military coup and that, “The United States is likely to eventually resume direct support for Mali’s military, but only after full restoration of democracy through elections”. Whilst the British support for Paris’s January 2013 intervention to prevent an Islamist land grab in Mali is slightly more direct (France is after all a fellow EU member-state) London also has concerns about the aim and viability of the French mission and the nature of the regime in Bamako.

American and British concerns are not limited to the leaders in Bamako. Whilst there is some acceptance that France had to act to prevent violent extremism, there is also concern that because France will be unlikely to sustain its current military effort indefinitely the timetable set by French prime minister for the March withdrawal of French troops is unrealistic.  British efforts to train West African troops, both directly with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and as part of a wider EU training mission, will take a significant time before an African force able to operate effectively can be in place. 

Both the US and Britain are also heavily engaged in Afghanistan, with the transition of power to Kabul the main focus of their efforts at least until the end of 2014. Given that commitment both Washington and London are loathe to be sucked into an operation in Mali and the surrounding region by a France increasingly desperate to find allies who can offer it a way out. The US has some 58,000 troops in Afghanistan and the British some 9,000 – all of which are in great need of the logistics capabilities that have been diverted to support the French-led effort, not least the two Royal Air Force C-17 heavy lift aircraft committed to Mali by the British.

Schadenfreude would be too strong a word. However, there is a sense of irony in both Washington and London that a France that was so reticent about offering the US and UK sustained support where it mattered in southern Afghanistan should be so insistent that les anglo saxons commit to France’s African demarche. This is especially so as the other Europeans have been even more reticent about assisting France directly. Indeed, some have even suggested – mistakenly – that the Mali intervention is a French attempt to shore up French influence in la francophonie through the support of the EU. 

Whilst David Cameron likened the recent hostage crisis in Algeria to a “generational struggle” and clearly linked events therein to the Islamist/nationalist insurgency in Mali, Britain has no intention of committing combat forces to Mali. There is still no sense that events in Mali present a real and present danger to Britain. And, given President Hollande’s uncompromising attitude towards British desires to change its relationship with the EU, there is unlikely to be any British belief that by helping France out over Mali Paris might give London something in return.

Pretty much the same can be said of Washington’s view. The US may indeed be willing to offer more strategic intelligence and logistical support to the French but suspicions abound within the administration about French motives in the region. Moreover, being in the process of extracating US forces from two costly and hardly successful conflicts, the Obama administration is determined not to be sucked into another – especially if one that could be construed as being at French behest. Ten years on from Iraq some soars still run deep.

Furthermore, public opinion in both America and Britain is flatly opposed to more foreign adventures without end. Indeed, if there is to be any such engagement then Syria would be a far more deserving case. Images of Mali’s turmoil are rarely seen on American or British television channels, and France’s Mali intervention as such is seen as a political sideshow that warrants only the most limited support.

For the British the situation was not helped by a recent outburst on French television by Bernard-Henri Levy, a well-known intellectual and author, who described Britain’s support as “spineless”: the statement was given much prominence in Britain and seen as extremely unfair considering France’s lack of solidarity with Britain in Afghanistan. For France the reaction of its European partners must be concerning. In spite of strong UN-backing for France’s intervention, Europeans have been less than enthusiastic in their support with only the British sending a force of any size – albeit only for training of African forces under the command of the African-led International Support Force in Mali (AFISMA).

Clearly, the French-led intervention in Mali is at a tipping point: there is no doubt that elite French forces have inflicted serious casualties on the Islamist militants. However, it is also clear that Mali is a very long way from establishing the building blocks for democratic institutions, good governance and the rule of law and security called for by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her August 2012 visit to Africa (which did not include a visit to Mali). Furthermore, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said recently that France would begin withdrawing its forces in March only “…if all goes as planned”. What that plan is remains not at all clear.

Given the continuing instability of Mali, Washington and London could face critical questions more quickly than they had hoped. What will the two countries do if the Islamists and their Tuareg allies recover from the initial shock of the French intervention and continue their insurgency? Will the US and UK move more robustly to support France directly? Or, if France pulls out as envisaged and Mali begins to collapse, what action – if any – will they take?

These are open and serious questions, despite the persistent priority in both Washington and London to avoid being sucked into a Malian political quagmire.