What Happens If France Asks For Western Ground Troops In Mali?


There’s a real thought-provoker buried in The French Mess In Mali and Libya by Prof. Rajan Menon today – the entire piece about the chances France may find itself in a quagmire in Mali is worth a read but this caught my eye:

France could find itself in just the pickle it wants to avoid. And the United States and Britain, who have said they’ll limit themselves to providing France and the African troops indirect support (logistical and intelligence), may have to decide whether to let France twist in the wind. Doing so would hardly be good for NATO solidarity.

The French exit-strategy from Mali is not well defined: stated objectives include a return to democratic governance and preventing the state becoming a potential launchpad for Islamist terror attacks, but it is very unclear whether local African allies can stand up and do the jobs they’ll need to, while France’s current force of 2,500 is woefully inadequate to do nation-building in a state larger than all of France itself. Still, those troops are probably enough to prevent the Tuaregs or Islamist extremist forces in the North from taking the South (given they are inclined to do so) and to keep the capital safe. The chances of an extended occupation, utilizing local poorly-trained proxies as cannon-fodder a-la-Afghanistan, seem pretty high to me. It’s worth wondering how such a protracted occupation will affect NATO alliance members and their own grand plans.

Well, there’s this from the London Times three days ago:

British forces are on alert for an emergency deployment to Mali as David Cameron commits the UK to a fully-fledged battle against al-Qaeda in northern Africa.

The Times understands that units from the Army, Royal Navy and RAF are on “high readiness” to deploy if requested in support of France, which is attempting to repel Islamist extremists from the north of the country.

At the end of the day, I think France has Britain over a barrel, and that in turn makes a U.S. refusal to get more heavily involved too unlikely. If France insists that it is a case of  Britain sending ground troops to assist or be seen as breaching the spirit of the 2010  “Entente Frugale”, then I don’t think Cameron will hesitate.  Ending that defense agreement would have two immediate effects – ending the UK nuclear deterrent force, and ending the British navy’s procurement of two new aircraft carriers – which would see Cameron swept from office by a vote of no confidence and a popular nationalist reaction the very next day. The U.S. baseline foreign policy consensus is also heavily committed to Britain keeping its nukes and flat-tops, and Cameron would be frantically calling Obama and asking for assistance. Obama would agree as well – he’d have to – even if he prefers a Reagan Doctrine stance personally.

From there. other NATO members would fall into line – especially the Germans, who are already leaning off the fence about getting involved:

having let down its allies by staying out of Libya, Germany is eager to demonstrate its dependability and readiness to take on responsibility again, as evidenced by its deployment of Patriot missile defense systems and 170 soldiers as part of a NATO mission to Turkey. But Mali is arguably different. Moving beyond logistical and humanitarian support to become directly involved in fighting might lead to an intervention fraught with risk that many Germans fear, for good reason. A lasting defeat of the Islamist extremists and the establishment of long-term stability in Mali will require a lengthy and demanding operation. Hardly anyone believes in the initial French promise of an early troop withdrawal.

Yet Berlin also has good reasons to assume a more active role in the conflict. For one, Germany cannot stand on the sidelines while its neighbor, fellow NATO ally and EU partner France defends African and European security alone. Moreover, an extended conflict in Mali risks destabilizing the Arab Spring transition in North Africa and could result in growing refugee flows to the north, which would affect Germany as much as France. Finally, any German reservations about developments within the mission will carry much more weight if Germany articulates them from the position of a central partner rather than as an external observer.

…Several influential politicians have demanded that Germany act more forcefully in Mali — among them the leader of the Green opposition party Jürgen Trittin, the president of the German parliament Norbert Lammert and the chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs Ruprecht Polenz, the last two both members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union.

With France perhaps still in the lead, we’d then have the U.S. and Europe’s big three all committed to yet another decade-long occupation to build a nation that may not even be buildable and with far more opportunity for mission-creeping into other nations than Afghanistan ever did.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

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  • Good stuff, per usual, Mr. Hynd.

    I have nothing but questions about all this. Namely, have you seen any government make a substantive case for intervention that describes any compelling National Interest in this?

    I get the blowback angle, which is legit, given the bloody folly that was and still is Libya. I also assume there are resources at stake and European corporate interests. I’m sure the banks figure in there as well, but I’m guessing.

    But most of the discussion seems to hover around relationships, “responsibility”, the alliance and so on. No substance on the actual need for intervention beyond, “Jihadis! Aaaargh!” No mention of competition with Chinese concerns, except as an occasional aside. One would think that a rather large concern, no?

    Lacking a real argument, all we’re left with is AFRICOM and why it was established in the first place. It just rather looks like a replay of the old colonialist competition of a century ago and that sure worked out really well for the people of that continent.

  • Good questions, Ford. You’re right that the primary US and UK reasoning has centered around an Islamist threat that is currently focused locally rather than on far horizons, and wasn’t likely to ever have raised its sights absent a Western intervention. There are the usual possible reasons: mineral wealth galore (which it may be uneconomic to extract), feeding the military-industrial complex after Afghanistan, and supporting knee-jerk French colonialism because – as outlined above – the alternative is a bust-up of NATO and UK defense plans. There’s no doubt China’s involvement in Africa is in some folks’ minds too. The view from China is well addressed in a recent piece from Brookings.

    What worries China most about the French intervention in Mali is that it may “provide a precedent to the legitimization of ‘neo-interventionism’ in Africa.” He Wenping, a leading Chinese expert on Africa, points it out that although France upholds the flag of “fighting terrorism” in its decision to intervene in Mali, not all of the local opposition groups in Mali are actually terrorists. China sees this as particularly alarming because it legitimizes “fighting terrorism” as justification for foreign intervention in a civil war of a sovereign country. For Beijing, the precedent is a dangerous challenge to its non-interference principle, the foundation of China’s foreign policy.

    I suppose it’s always possible that “Jihadis! Aaaargh!” is really the primary reason – there’s certainly a body of evidence that says the Beltway is more scared of local Islamist groups and spends more time talking about that fear than the rest of us do. Sometimes, after all, a cigar is just a cigar.

    • Of course “jihadis arrgh!” is the primary reason.

      Look at it through their (inside the Beltway types) eyes – what was the primary lesson of Yemen for them? If conditions are favourable on the ground, jihadi groups can go from being locally focused to also striking at the US and western homelands in quite short periods of time, with the transition remaining under the detection threshold and high levels of capability developing quite quickly.

      By extension, this means that there isn’t such a thing as a jihadi group that can be assumed a priori to be benign and exclusively locally focused. Most will be, but the money that views itself as smart will hedge by remaining connected to all the fights and particularly looking out for signs that the al-Qa`eda core is trying to exploit the local situation to take the focus transnational. The western operational precept is clearly to preferentially build local capabilities to keep these groups to a dull roar, but when situations arise that are beyond the capabilities of the locals, western powers will use expeditionary warfare to “mow the lawn” and knock the high capacity groups back down to a level that can be dealt with by the locals. This does not entail “nation building” but rather extended duration “FID plus” and provision of key technical capabilities, periodic expeditionary warfare as needed, and disciplined realist nose holding as to bed partners. The biggest danger in all of this is that any of the “neo-” perspectives will get rolled into the decision making, even unconsciously. My advice to all involved is to stop trying to mean well – the more this is a dispassionate business, the better off everyone will be.

    • Happily, Muslims (or even all Sufis) agreeing on all the details long enough to establish a Caliphate nowadays is about as likely as Christians agreeing enough to re-establish a new Byzantine Empire.

    • The Sufis? Given that one of the things they’ve been doing in Mali is demolishing Sufi shrines, that doesn’t sound so much with the correct.

  • According to Hillary Clinton, “This will be a long struggle but it is a necessary struggle.” and, “We cannot allow Northern Mali to become a safe haven.”

    Her “we” appears to be her and the frog in her pocket, because Obama is showing a bit more sanity with a tacit, “Let’s you and him fight.”

    (Yes, it was on purpose.)

  • I don’t think the Tuareg are as organized nor as big as the Kurds nor as sophisticated. I think that this is much more a civil war than Afghanistan. I think that blowback elements from Libya are inserting themselves for their own purposes and are the proximate cause of the current crisis. I believe that Anser Dine predates Libya and is a corruption of the Tuareg desire for a homeland that is also attempting to take advantage of Salifist ideology and money. I think a lot of various outcomes depend upon how much support any guerrilla forces have with various locals. I believe that the regular Mali government is a weak partner at best and is where France needs in a medium run to focus its efforts.

    The route to success here would lie in creating an independent Tuareg state while building the Mali state towards a stronger independence. Both have local support that is not Salifist radical and would in the long run be able to contain such elements if each didn’t have to fight the other.

    Then too a world awash in arms and arms manufacturers is doomed to instability where weak governments exist and doomed to assault weapons killing sprees where strong governments exist but encourage the ownership of war arms by individuals. Lets move on beyond the question of private ownership of guns and lets begin to also address the private ownership of gun manufacturers.

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