So Why Did France Invade Mali Anyway?

Expert says France fights to protect Europe’s ‘backyard’

Malian soldiers, helped by French troops, move a broken helicopter out a hangar to make room for more incoming troops at Bamako's airport.Malian soldiers, helped by French troops, move a broken helicopter out a hangar to make room for more incoming troops at Bamako’s airport.

The French military action in Mali serves not only to keep the unstable African nation from falling under the yoke of Islamic extremist rule, but also to keep terrorists out of France and Europe’s front yard, analysts say.

France has deployed thousands of ground troops to reinforce aerial strikes that began on Friday, in an attempt to quell a coalition of disparate extremist groups approaching the capital city from the north. The insurgents’ progress has startled some experts who did not think they would already seize territory within 200 miles of Bamako.

The goal of pushing back the northern fighters is clear, but how it will be accomplished remains very uncertain. Other countries in West Africa are still trying to determine their role in the efforts to keep Mali from toppling, and France, the former colonial master of Mali, itself faces internal disputes over the next step in their strategy.

“[The extremists’] ultimate goal is to establish Mali as an Islamic state,” says Morgan Roach, research analyst with the Heritage Foundation. “It would provide them with a base to not only carry out and recruit, but train as well as launch international terrorist attacks.”

“[The French] have an interest in Mali, and they have colonial ties to Mali. They consider this their backyard and a threat to France and Europe,” she adds.

Reconfiguring the country as a terrorist base would likely not happen quickly, but is possible barring outside intervention, Roach says. Former Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure failed to turn over the government to any kind of civilian rule before he was ousted last March in coup d’etat, leaving the country vulnerable to power grabs.

Preventing total governmental collapse is “absolutely critical to stop the offensive of terrorist groups,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Tuesday.

The rebel fighters are a motley crew comprised of three primary groups. Ansar al Din is an Islamist group led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a former Malian diplomat with experience to posts such as Saudi Arabia. Ag Ghaly is a Tuareg, the Berber nomadic tribe found throughout Saharan regions of North Africa. He is connected to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a mostly Arab affiliate of the terrorist network based in North Africa. AQIM also has close ties with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, comprised of largely of sub-Saharan Africans.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Tuesday these groups pose a serious threat worldwide.

“[AQIM] and Al-Shabaab continue to sow instability and exploit safe havens in Mali, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, destabilizing societies and obstructing the delivery of vital humanitarian relief to millions in need,” she said at a Security Council briefing.

“Terrorist groups continue to adapt, evolving into criminal entrepreneurs, engaging in trafficking and other illicit activities to finance their operations,” Rice added.

The U.N. Security Council on Monday backed France’s military action.

As for whether France’s response will be effective, it’s too early to tell, Heritage’s Roach says.

“They’re not off to a good start, considering Diabaly was taken, despite aerial bombardment,” she says. The small town less than 200 miles northeast of Bamako was the target of French aerial strikes. Intense clashes between al Qaeda-linked extremists and Malian and French ground troops began there Thursday morning, BBC reports.

“They have an uphill battle. They need to fight back this coalition of Islamic groups, and then, ‘What then?’ ” she says.

The Economic Community of West African States has not yet reached a consensus on how to deploy African forces to support the mission, which was supposed to begin later this year.

Newly elected French President Francois Hollande said in a press conference Tuesday that troops would remain in Mali until the country is safe and stable, though the French foreign minister said the engagement would only last for a matter of weeks.

Public support in France remains high for the mission. Almost two-thirds of the country support it, according to a Monday poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion, reported by the Christian Science Monitor.

But Roach questions how long that will stand, particularly if French troops start taking casualties.

The best case scenario involves a long, two-pronged approach, she says, of fighting off the Islamic militants as they hide among civilians, and push them back to arid, sparsely populated northern Mali.

A successful military campaign would have to be followed by resurrecting the Malian government to a state where it can defend itself.

This is an optimistic appraisal versus the worst outcome, of the French and Malians losing control of Bamako to the rebel fighters and Mali becomes under de facto Islamic extremist control.

The most likely situation, says Roach, is a combination of the two. Most of the fighters will be pushed back into the north, but some will remain blended in the civilian population. They won’t be able to advance, but they also can’t be pushed back.

It could lead to an eventual stalemate, she says. “I don’t think this is going anywhere any time soon. The troops are very well dug in and for now, at least, they are unified and working together.”

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