The French military intervention in Mali, which started on January 11, has predictably caused international shockwaves. President François Hollande has increased his forces from 1,700 to 2,000, and French warplanes based near the capital, Bamako, have attacked the central towns of Konna and Diabaly, retaking the latter according to latest reports. Several European countries have offered logistical support, and the EU plans to help an African force under United Nations auspices. The French operation was triggered by the fall of Konna to rebel forces, who combine long-standing Tuareg secessionists with members of the homegrown extreme Islamist group Ansar Dine, as well as regional extremist outfits such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. Ansar Dine holds Timbuktu, a United Nations World Heritage site, and has destroyed ancient Islamic monuments because they don’t conform to the group’s Salafist beliefs. In addition, it has imposed a rigid form of the Sharia and banned all music from areas it controls.
Mr. Hollande’s action is lawful. It does not need French parliamentary approval, and the President only has to inform that body. In addition, Mali itself requested French intervention, which the U.N. Security Council unanimously backed on January 14, and on the ground, southern Malians and the French public have praised Paris’s move. Problems are, however, intensifying. The U.N. says 412,000 people have fled the north, and the conflict has affected five million in all. Al-Qaeda supporters could launch attacks in France, and the Malian army cannot win on its own. After the 2012 coup, the army immediately lost Timbuktu and Gao, and now some of its troops are reportedly refusing to follow orders. Moreover, the 3,300-strong force agreed to by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has not yet been assembled nor is it clear if it will have the equipment and approach needed to do the job. Ansar Dine also has sophisticated weapons left over from the French and western-inspired overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi in Libya. Mr. Hollande says France has no mission to stay long in Mali, but his defence minister says the aim is “total reconquest,” which could imply a prolonged campaign. Moreover, the Malian government has made no apparent attempt to engage politically with the north. Yet the Tuaregs, who are only one northern group, have now offered to cooperate with Ecowas troops against Ansar Dine. Therefore, France would do far better to combine military support for the Malian government with pressure on the authorities in Bamako to negotiate with the Tuaregs and other northern groups.