Con Coughlin and David Blair:Can Mali be Saved From the Islamists? Can France Do It Alone?….see note please
It is now more than a decade since the UN Security Council unanimously approved the American-led campaign to destroy the terrorist infrastructure al-Qaeda had assembled in southern Afghanistan. There is nothing the world’s most notorious terrorist organisation likes more than to move into the ungoverned space of failed Islamic states, and southern Afghanistan proved the perfect hide-out from which Osama bin Laden and his cohorts could plot their diabolical attacks against the West.
Thanks to the success of Nato’s military intervention in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and its allies no longer enjoy that freedom: its terrorist infrastructure has been destroyed and the few survivors of bin Laden’s original organisation have sought refuge in mountain retreats.
But arguably the most depressing aspect of what used to be known as the war on terror is that no sooner has one group of Islamist terrorists been dealt with than another pops up. Since the elimination of al-Qaeda from southern Afghanistan in late 2001 we have seen variations of the movement take root in failing Islamic states such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and large tracts of North Africa.
Indeed, the ease with which groups of al-Qaeda operatives were able to set up new terrorist operations prompted General David Petraeus, the former CIA director, to liken the agency’s counter-terrorism campaign to a “whack-a-mole” policy, saying that “you need to hit all the moles at once”.
Al-Qaeda’s takeover of large swathes of the vast desert expanse of Mali should, therefore, be seen as the latest manifestation of a trend that began with the movement’s defeat in Afghanistan more than a decade ago, which has now resulted in its followers controlling a greater expanse of land than ever before.
For when “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM), the North African offshoot of bin Laden’s franchise, and its allies from the Tuareg tribe seized control of northern Mali last year, they captured a domain covering some 300,000 square miles, including military bases, arms dumps, ready‑made training facilities and airports.
This huge terrorist state, with its unofficial capital in the Saharan trading centre of Timbuktu, lies across a smuggling route used to run cocaine to Europe. This has provided AQIM with the means to make money out of its new heartland, as well as using it as a giant recruiting ground and training base.
Given that one of the cardinal objectives of the West’s original counter-terrorism strategy was to prevent the movement from achieving its long-held goal of establishing an independent fiefdom, AQIM’s successful takeover of large tracts of Mali might be considered something of a setback.
Certainly, the prospect of al-Qaeda further consolidating its hold over this desert kingdom was deemed to be too much for France, the region’s former colonial power, with the result that French President François Hollande felt obliged to launch the first military intervention of his presidency.
Mr Hollande is the last person one would expect to order his forces into action. During last year’s presidential election campaign, he positioned himself as the anti-war candidate, in contrast to the more bellicose president Nicolas Sarkozy, who played a leading role in the military campaign to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
One of Mr Hollande’s first acts as president was to order the immediate withdrawal of 2,000 troops from Afghanistan and, so far as Mali was concerned, he was happy to comply with the consensus among the Western powers that the best option was to allow African forces to restore order. This was despite the fact that France had played a pivotal role in securing UN backing for restoring order in Mali.
But Mr Hollande’s determination to steer clear of foreign military entanglements became unsustainable once the extremists launched an offensive aimed at securing still more territory. When AQIM’s gunmen captured the outpost of Konna, they were less than 40 miles from Mopti, the last garrison town standing between them and the capital, Bamako. For a moment, it seemed as if the remaining one third of Mali notionally in the hands of the shambolic central government might also fall under their sway. Hence President Hollande had no realistic option but to act. If not, one of Africa’s biggest countries risked becoming a terrorist state.
According to Richard Fenning, the head of Control Risks, which specialises in global security assessments and has closely monitored the situation in Mali, al-Qaeda’s takeover is a classic example of the group’s strategy of exploiting ungoverned space in Islamic countries. “They have taken over a very large area which is hard to monitor,” he says.
France will also have felt a unique sense of responsibility for the fate of its former colony. Uniquely among the old imperial powers that once governed Africa, the French have retained a significant military presence on the continent. The Mirage 2000 jets that carried out the first air strikes are based not in France but in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.
When Mr Hollande announced yesterday that French forces in Mali would be increased almost fivefold to reach 2,500 soldiers, the government explained that reinforcements would come from bases in Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal. While Britain has no permanent military presence in Africa – save for small training missions in Kenya and Sierra Leone – France has a string of outposts, giving it the ability to project its military power into the heart of the Sahara at a moment’s notice.
Given that France has demonstrated its ability to act with such speed, why did it take so long? After all, AQIM and its allies have been allowed 10 months of unchallenged control over northern Mali. They have used that time to gather strength, amassing weapons and recruits, particularly from Libya following the overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime. Dislodging them now will be far harder than if such an operation had been attempted earlier.
But now that Mr Hollande has belatedly been obliged to intervene, what exactly is the objective of this operation? Does France intend to halt the Islamist advance and weaken its grip, or is the real aim to recapture the north and break AQIM altogether? And how much support can France expect from its Nato allies, beyond the two RAF C-17 transport planes that are being used to ferry French troops to and from the war zone?
If Mr Hollande’s goal is limited to stopping and degrading AQIM, but leaving it to dominate the north until an African force can be put together to reunite Mali, then this operation will provide nothing more than a sticking plaster over a gaping wound.
If, however, France is prepared to lead a general offensive to expel AQIM from Mali, that will inevitably involve hard fighting on the ground and a real risk of serious casualties.
But for that to succeed, France will need a great deal more support from its Nato partners which, at a time when most Nato nations are focused on the forthcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan, is unlikely to be forthcoming.
At yesterday’s meeting of Britain’s National Security Council, which was chaired by David Cameron, the consensus was that British support for the French mission should be kept to a minimum, and that on no account would the Government sanction the deployment of British “boots on the ground” to back the French effort. Similar messages are coming from other Nato allies, including Washington.
Which means that – for the moment, at least – Mr Hollande is very much alone in his campaign to bring a halt to al-Qaeda’s relentless advance. To achieve this aim, France aims to deploy two battlegroups of about 1,250 men each, which should prove sufficient to stiffen Mali’s national army and prevent AQIM from taking more territory or threatening the capital. And even if France backs this strategy by conducting an extended air campaign designed to weaken and degrade AQIM until the African soldiers can finish the job, it looks as though Mr Hollande’s military adventure is set to run for some time to come.
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