THE capture by Islamist rebels on Monday of Diabaly, a hitherto government-controlled town some 400km from the Malian capital of Bamako, comes across as a setback for the French military intervention in Mali, which began last week without a great deal of warning.
On the other hand, it also suggests that President Francois Hollande was to some extent justified in claiming that delaying international assistance could have led to Bamako being overrun by jihadists.
A degree of international attention has been focused on Mali since last year, with government writ more or less absent in the northern two-thirds of the country amid a separatist Tuareg rebellion complicated by the increasing clout of Wahabist groups.
Western training for the Malian army was part of the idea, but it was thwarted to a degree by the defection of US-trained military officers — and an army captain, also American-trained, led a coup last March that pre-empted elections planned for April. Captain Amadou Sanogo overthrew the regime of Amadou Toumani Toure, an ex-general who had once led a coup of his own but was subsequently credited with ushering in democracy.
Toure is reported to have become fairly unpopular by the time he was deposed, and he was replaced after the coup by the speaker of the National Assembly, Dioncounda Traore, a mathematician by training, who made a calculated decision to request assistance from the former colonial power — France ruled Mali until 1960 — after Islamists overran the central town of Konna.
Just last month, meanwhile, Hollande turned down a plea from the Central African Republic’s Francois Bozize to send troops to stave off a rebel takeover of the capital, Bangui. “Those days are over,” the French president said at the time — which partly explains why the decision to send French troops and fighter jets into combat in Mali came as such a surprise.
Domestically, it has done wonders, at least in the short term, for the reputation of a president widely seen as indecisive. Even those who oppose Hollande on various other grounds, such as his advocacy of gay marriage rights (which prompted a sizeable conservative mobilisation on the boulevards of Paris on Sunday), are impressed by his initiative, which has officially been explained on the grounds that Mali’s conversion into a “terrorist state” would not just endanger the 6,000 French expatriates in Bamako but also sharply increase Western Europe’s vulnerability to Islamist attacks.
In his campaign for the presidency, one of Hollande’s planks was an early pullout from Afghanistan — which could be viewed as something of a contradiction, given that it’s not hard to draw parallels between the Taliban and Mali’s Ansar Dine and the smaller Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. Besides, just as Al Qaeda and the Taliban are frequently deemed to be in cahoots, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is deemed to be playing a significant role in Mali. It is believed, for instance, to have been instrumental in the destruction of historic Sufi mosques and shrines in Timbuktu.
A key element in the Malian rebellion, meanwhile, is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg organisation that has fought alongside the Islamists but also feuded with them. Its declared aim is a separate state in northern Mali, but it has lately indicated its willingness to join the push against the jihadists.
There have been reports that Nigeria’s Boko Haram is also involved in Malian subversion. Ansar Dine, intriguingly, is led by Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, whose conversion to the Salafist cause was reportedly the consequence of proselytisation by Pakistan’s Tableeghi Jamaat.
Much of the MNLA’s firepower, meanwhile, is attributed to the weapons its fighters brought back from Libya, where they were apparently involved in defending the Gaddafi regime.
The US has been engaged to some extent in ‘counter-terrorist’ surveillance and training across swathes of Africa, its operations shrouded in secrecy; it came as a surprise to American media last July when three US commandos ended up dead in the Niger River after plunging off a bridge in Bamako. Tellingly, the fatalities included three women accompanying the troops, who were subsequently identified as Moroccan prostitutes.
Unwilling to commit substantial forces, the US has backed a United Nations Security Council plan that entailed eventual military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which was expected to commence in September, after the rainy season, as well as training for Malian soldiers.
France evidently believed that would have been much too late, and last week Ecowas countries indicated they would rush troops into Mali within days to back the French forces. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, has meanwhile rejected comparisons with Afghanistan and indicated that his nation’s involvement in Mali would be over in “a matter of weeks”.
That may turn out to have been a tall claim. Foreign military interventions, no matter how well-intentioned and well-planned, are rarely swift and they can often turn exceedingly messy. There have already been claims of civilian casualties in Mali, and many more are likely to follow.
The strength of the rebels is a source of speculation, and one can only hope that reports of their grassroots unpopularity are not exaggerated. It is not hard to understand why brutal punishments would cause consternation in a hitherto relaxed milieu, or why a ban on music would go down poorly in a land that has spawned the likes of Ali Farka Toure, Salif Keita and Toumani Diabate.
An eventual evaluation of Monsieur Hollande’s initiative will depend, however, on what French forces — so far gratifyingly small — leave behind. The weakness of Mali’s civilian as well as military institutions suggests stability would be a miracle even if the local and foreign Islamists can decisively be repulsed.
What’s more, there’s not much comfort to be found in the consequences of either sustained military intervention of the Iraqi and Afghan variety or the short, sharp variant witnessed in Libya.