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A theme of President François Hollande’s election campaign was to reduce France’s overseas interventionist activities.
France’s most recent military intervention – of which there have been nearly 50 since the 1960s – was the March 2011 bombing of Gaddafi’s forces after the UN authorised the intervention to protect civilians caught up in the rebellion.
Ironically, France’s involvement in Libya’s rebellion set in motion the smuggling of arms and jihadist fighters across its borders into neighbouring Mali, which was poorly governed and a soft target.
Under the banner of several jihadist groups, Aqim (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), the Mujao (Movement for Oneness and jihad in West Africa) and the Malian militant groups Ansar Dine, they rapidly took over most of northern Mali, an area the size of France.
Mali’s apparent inability to respond and protect its sovereignty, caused mutinous soldiers to overthrow Mali’s democratically elected president in March. In this power vacuum the Islamic fundamentalists imposed harsh Sharia, strict covering of women, banning music, and whipping, amputating and stoning to death of people convicted of crimes by makeshift courts. The militants have destroyed ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims. In addition, trafficking of people, slaves and weapons is rampant.
The political response was tardy. On November 14, the AU requested the UN Security Council to endorse a military intervention to free northern Mali from Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda. Only on December 20 did the UN authorise via Resolution 2085 a regional African force for Mali.
The French minister of foreign affairs, Laurent Fabius, announced on January 16 that, following a request from Mali’s President Dioncounda Traoré and the capture of Konna, that “we were indeed dealing with blatant aggression” and that France should intervene militarily. He stated that France was “pursuing clear objectives: halting the terrorist advance; preserving the Malian state and helping it regain its territorial integrity; promoting the implementation of international resolutions with the deployment of the African force; and providing support for Malian forces in their effort to recapture northern Mali”.
The overwhelmingly positive response to the French move by the UN secretary-general, the Security Council and by all the nations in west Africa illustrates the seriousness the threat to African peace and security was perceived to be.
There is growing awareness of an “arc” of Jihadist terror groups all along the Sahel, and a concern that Malian jihadists would co-ordinate with other Islamist militants such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s al-Shabaab.
There is a widespread fear that Mali could become another Somalia or Afghanistan – a failed state with no effective government, allowing extremists a huge area to train in and launch attacks from across the Sahel. The imposition of hardline Sharia accompanied by brutal human rights abuses could also have resulted in mass migrations of people that could overwhelm neighbouring countries.
Without the support of Algeria, the military intervention would have been impossible, because Algeria shares a border with northern Mali, and because many of the Islamist rebels in Aqim originate from Algeria. Despite huge internal opposition, Algeria has supported the French military intervention by granting France and other states flyover rights and closing its border with Mali.
“The intervention must be peaceful,” Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, told an Arab development conference in Saudi Arabia.
Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, took a more subtle position, firstly expressing his opposition, in principle, against any military intervention in Mali by anyone other than African forces, and then he qualified his views, saying the intervention was “exceptional and justified” after meeting with French ambassador Francois Gouyette.
Tunisian presidential spokesman, Adnan Manser, differed, saying that Tunisia did not support the French intervention in Mali or any foreign military intervention in that country. He felt that the conflict could threaten neighbouring countries, including Tunisia.
France is aware that the intervention can continue only as long as the plan is approved by the UN, and is thus planning for a short campaign. France is focusing on helping Malian armed forces by targeting terrorist support bases to neutralise their offensive capabilities. In this way, France aims to reduce the pressure from terrorist groups through a combined air-and-ground action led by special forces.
France is fully aware that it cannot act alone and that it needs the support of African nations to assist with logistics, transport and air-to-air refuelling. France intends appealing for international donors to help finance the African mission at a conference today. The EU also plans to host a meeting on Mali on February 5, with the support of the UN and the AU.
The UK, the US, Canada, Germany, Belgium and Denmark and other nations should be joining soon. Paris aims to hand over the military operation to the UN-mandated African-led International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma) “as quickly as possible”.
Military experts say the swift and effective deployment of African forces is crucial to sustain the momentum of France’s air campaign and prevent Islamists from melting away into the desert or mountains.
While west African countries are rallying to this cause by contributing around 3 400 troops from Senegal, Benin, Togo, Niger and Burkina Faso, and a force of nearly 1 000 Nigerians, South Africa is still sitting on the sidelines.
Chad, with forces familiar with fighting in desert conditions, has confirmed it will send 2 000 troops.
Military strategists, however, believe that victory could take months, or even years.
Estimates of the numbers of jihadists range from 1 200 to over 3 000.
Does this step by France indicate that despite the dangers and risks of intervention, it has realised that jihadism represents a real threat to the mainland of Europe? Does it moreover indicate that African and Western nations may need to find common cause in acknowledging that there has been a resurgence of Islamic extremism following the Arab Spring, that is inherently antithetical to the moderate version of Islam that pervades the African continent?
Have African leaders realised that concerted co-operative action is needed to stop the implosion of their states along religious and ethnic lines, induced by the spread of jihadism? It would certainly seem that we are witnessing the crossing of the Rubicon in the thinking of how Africa intends to respond to future insurgencies by jihadists.
* Levitas is the chairman of the SA Zionist Federation’s Cape Council