France appears to be halting the lightning advance of radical Islamists seen as a threat to Europe.
But the operation raises the specter of an African quagmire in a new theater of the West’s “war on terror” just as France and other U.S. allies emerge from the old one in Afghanistan. And it undermines President Francois Hollande’s promise to end the cozy, paternalistic ties France has long sustained with its former African colonies.
Eyes around the world are on France to see what it does next. Will French troops move into a support role, behind African troops, as initially set out for the West by a United Nations Security Council resolution on Mali? Or will they be lured into deeper involvement at the behest of Mali and other African nations — and, perhaps, take Western allies with them?
To avoid entrapment, “the purpose (of the French mission in Mali) has to be limited in scope but it has to have specific strategic purposes,” said security analyst Sajjan Gohel.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian painted the mission in broad strokes: “We need to get rid of this terrorism that threatens to put at risk the security of Mali and the security of our country and of Europe.” He refused to say when the intervention would end.
But an aide to Hollande stressed the importance of transferring responsibility to regional players. “The important word is Africanization, meaning rapid deployment of the African force,” the official said.
Francois Heisbourg, international analyst with the Foundation for Strategic Research, compared the situation to the Afghanistan of 2001, when French troops joined the NATO mission there. Last month, France drew the curtain on its Afghanistan engagement, pulling out the last of its fighting troops. The U.S. is winding up its military operation next year.
What may make this campaign different is Hollande’s promise to end a long-standing informal policy of paternalism with former African colonies and fawning gratitude in return. The policy, known as France-Afrique, was widely detested by all those outside the circles of privilege and special favors. The French “are keenly aware of the need not to lose the political support of the Africans, collectively and individually,” Heisbourg said.
Experts say France must avoid ballooning their mission. But it’s not easy for the country to pull out of former colonies where it maintains ties and sees security concerns — and sometimes is asked by the local government for protection. As Heisbourg noted, “We’ve been in Chad for . . . 45 years.”