Mali Civil War: France and U.S. Eye Larger Role


On Monday, President Obama held the last scheduled press conference of his first term, where he discussed raising the debt ceiling. Meanwhile, Washington does not appear to be working hard to find places to cut spending, but to find new places to spend.

While the partisan pundits were busy bashing Obama, his defense secretary was on his way to Europe and chatted with reporters on the plane. Leon Panetta explained that the U.S. has vowed to assist France as it invests in an ongoing conflict in Northern Mali. He said the U.S. may offer help with mid-flight refueling planes and air transport. The U.S. has spent up to $600 million combating Islamic militants in the region.

As the battle to balance the budget grows ever more fierce, and the partisan gridlock ever more acrimonious, funding adventures such as Mali, may be difficult to defend. Still, the U.S. sees even far away Mali as a strategic front in the war against terror, as Panetta said, “The fact is, we have made a commitment that Al Qaeda is not going to find any place to hide.”

Since 2002, Mali has been a democratic, pro-Western state, but has suffered from conflict for a year, as nomadic Taureg tribes, Islamic militants, mutinous soldiers have all tried to wrest control of the country from the Malian Government. As Islamic forces, associated with Al Qaeda gained ground, the government of Mali requested help. This month France — Mali’s former colonizer — vowed to defend the Malian government, and President Hollande launched Opération Serval, a combination of air and land assaults on militants. The Malian Army, now supported by 550 French soldiers, claims to have already killed over 100 Islamic militants in a battle in the town of Konna. AFP witnesses reported dozens of corpses in the lying around the area. One French pilot, has been killed so far.

Abdheramane Oumarou, a rebel leader claims, “We are in the best of all possible worlds…All of the sites they targeted, they hit. The airport. The warehouses, they destroyed them. These were all sites occupied by the Islamists, and they have been totally destroyed.”

He added, “The population of Gao will sleep soundly, and will even snore.”

To the south of Gao as well, residents are relieved because the Islamists have been beat back. The Malian government is deeply grateful to France, as the militants seem to be on the run.

Hollande is receiving strong support at home, as well as from the international community, for his intervention in Mali, but he is not out of the jungle yet. The Islamic militants are holding French hostages, and there is concern for their safety. Hollande has warned that their captors could hurt hostages in revenge for French attacks on the militants. Oumar Ould Hamaha, a militant leader, told Europe 1 radio that the intervention had “opened the gates of hell for all the French.” This blustery rhetoric takes first prize over even Panetta’s taunt that “Al Qaeda is not going to find any place to hide.” And we have seen this kind of rhetoric time and time again from terrorists, such as the recent Israel-Gaza war, when Hamas said Israel had “opened the gates of hell,” after they skillfully assassinated the infamous General Ahmed Jabari. Unfortunately for the terrorists, the U.S. may be broke, but the debt ceiling can still rise and the bombs can still fall.

France and the world applauded Hollande’s intervention in Mali, but for how long is such an effort sustainable? Islamic militants in Mali will seek to lure France and the U.S. into a drawn out conflict. The militants are arming children to fight their war, and can turn out soldiers for far less money than the West. If France and the U.S. cannot get the job done fast, they will face war-weary, revenue-starved publics at home. Like guests and fish, expensive third world adventures begin to stink quite quickly.