France and to a lesser extent other EU members suddenly remembered that there is a poor country down below which was gradually overtaken by Islamist rebels and decided to take action in order to restore stability in it. In particular, France deployed ‘Operation Serval’ in order to defeat the Islamist rebels who were slowly taking over the country. Paper tiger declarations were released from both France and the EU about the importance of human rights in the area and the need to protect them. The EU also decided to deploy a multinational military training mission (EUTM – European Training Mission Mali) which will train and provide advice to Mali’s military.
The Mali government had every legal right to ask for foreign intervention and so it did. In addition, various neighbouring countries in Africa as well as a number of European countries also supported the French operation. There was a wide consensus both within and out of Europe that intervening in Mali was the right thing to do.
However, one does not go to war for the mere battle of ideas and values. The French Mali mission has a substantial cost and may lead to the loss of lives of the French personnel deployed there.
Pragmatic reasons are at the centre of the French decision to intervene. France worries about the escalation of violence stemming from the extremist Islamist threat. If Mali would become a pariah Islamist state this would have a direct impact on French national security. There are Mali citizens residing in France, some of whom may become a force for radical Islamism within France.
Furthermore, the wider Western African region is rich in uranium, oil and rare earths. A number of French companies are largely implicated in the exploitation of the rich soils of various African states. For instance, a possible violent escalation in Mali could have caused a perturbation in the neighbouring state of Niger where French companies are active in uranium deals.
Plus, the French Mali operation provides President Hollande with the opportunity to demonstrate that he is doing something decisive – even if this is only outside his country. No more will he be seen as a ‘softie’.
The French and EU operations may be successful in bringing short-term stability against the Islamist rebels. Nevertheless, all Western-led operations in Mali should be judged on a long-term basis. If they contribute to the creation of long-term strategic planning for the Sahel area, then their impact should be judged as positive. If they succeed in engaging the indifferent Europeans to this poor area of the world this will also be an incredible achievement in its own right. These missions will be appreciated even more if they are followed by a long-term planning of state building based on the rule of law and the eradication of poverty. They will be highly valued if they can guarantee all Malian citizens who come from different ethnic backgrounds the right to peacefully coexist in the country.
However, if none of the above are achieved, both French Serval and the EUTM will look like short-lived fireworks in a very dark sky. It is the long-term prospects of Mali that should pre-occupy us now.