Saturday, January 12, 2013

France Commits Troops To Mali


I'm guessing most Americans scratched their heads quizzically when Mitt Romney brought Mali up during the foreign policy debate with President Obama. Mali has a storied history-- think Timbuktu-- and their gold helped fund the Renaissance and their music led directly to the blues. I spent almost a month there in 2008, mostly in Bamako, Timbuktu, Dogon country, Djenne and Mopti. More recently, the country has been devasted by a civil war and other African countries and the UN have been talking about coming to the Malians rescue... and talking and talking and talking. This week, apparently, France stopped talking-- and started rescuing.
President Francois Hollande has said France is intervening to stop al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Mali who have been moving toward the capital, Bamako.

The announcement by the leader of France, the former colonial overseer in West Africa, came on Friday after Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore had appealed for French help in stopping the rebels' advance.

"I have agreed to Mali's demand, which means French forces have provided support to Mali this afternoon," Hollande said on Friday. "The operation will last as long as is necessary."

The Malian army is already being backed by Western military personnel in a fresh counter-offensive against Islamists, a Mali government official confrimed to the AFP news agency.

"European military, including French, are present in Mali to repel any southward advance by the Islamists," the official told AFP on Friday. "We will not reveal their number, nor where they are based, nor what equipment they have.

"They are here. We thank these countries who have understood that we are dealing with terrorists," he added.

Efforts to retake the central town of Kona were launched from Sevare, a town about 70km to the south, where the Malian army has a command base.

Kona was seized by Islamist armed groups on Thursday and about 1,200 fighters have moved to within 20km of Mopti, a strategically important town on the frontier between rebel-held and government-held territories.

Mopti hosts a key Malian military airstrip, which would be vital for any missions into the north of the country.

"We're talking about no ECOWAS intervention until September, so taking that airport would delay everything," political analyst Sylvain Touati told Al Jazeera.

"The situation has been the same for seven months. I don't know why Hollande has talked about intervention today, since [Mali] is already destabilising."

Until now, France-- like other EU countries-- had limited its plans for assistance to training and logistics support for Mali's troubled army, and had deferred to Mali and its African neighbours to resolve the crisis.

"They really needed to be propped up by another force," said Al Jazeera's Rory Challands, reporting from Paris. "It doesn't seem like Mali's government has much time."

The EU will also speed up preparations to send a team to Mali to help train the country's army to fight Islamist rebels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Friday.

Earlier, the UN Security Council had called for the "rapid deployment" of an African-led international force to Mali.

France has hundreds of troops across western Africa, with bases or sites in places such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Chad and Gabon.

The rebels "have even tried to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali", President Hollande said in an earlier speech on Friday to the French diplomatic corps. "France, like its African partners and the entire international community, cannot accept that."

France will act under authority of three recent UN Security Council resolutions that call on member states to help Mali resolve its crisis in the face of a terrorist threat, both through political and military means, French diplomats have said.

Speaking to the Associated Press news agency after the president's speech, a top French diplomat said his country has completed its deployment of two surveillance drones to the region-- to help boost reconnaissance of the rebels' movements and activities.

The official said France is now able to deploy military assets "very quickly" and insisted that Hollande's speech was "not just words... When you say that you are ready to intervene, you have to be.

France's position has been complicated because armed groups in northern Mali currently hold seven French hostages.

In an updated travel advisory, the French foreign ministry said on Friday all non-essential French citizens should leave. International aid organisations have begun evacuating staff from the narrow central belt of the country.

For months, Hollande had explicitly said France would not send ground forces into Mali, but Hollande's speech suggested that French air power would be used-- marking a shift from recent public statements from Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that it would not be.
The Tuareg rebels are fighting, at least in part, to reassert their right to hold slaves, something we saw with our own eyes in the northern part of the country. Right now, the Western powers are hoping to turn the Tuaregs against the Islamists so they're not demonizing the Tuaregs in the media in terms of slavery, something their government's don't prioritize. The key town of Konna has been recaptured and yesterday, the NY Times was already reporting that the French are "engaged in an intense battle to beat back an aggressive militant push into the center of the country," breaking the stalemate with the Islamists who have seized most of the country.
French troops carried out airstrikes against Islamist fighters, blunting an advance by hundreds of heavily armed extremists, according to French officials and Gen. Carter F. Ham, the top American military commander in Africa. One French helicopter had apparently been downed in the fighting, he said.

The Pentagon is now weighing a broad range of options to support the French effort, including enhanced intelligence-sharing and logistics support, but it is not considering sending American troops, General Ham said.

The sudden introduction of Western troops upends months of tortured debate over how-- and when-- foreign nations should confront the Islamist seizure of northern Mali. The Obama administration and governments around world have long been alarmed that a vast territory roughly twice the size of Germany could so easily fall into the hands of extremists, calling it a safe haven where terrorists were building their ranks and seeking to extend their influence throughout the region and beyond.

Yet for months, the Islamists have appeared increasingly unshakable in their stronghold, carrying out public amputations, whippings and stonings as the weak Malian army retreated south and African nations debated how to find money and soldiers to recapture the territory.

All of that changed this week, when the Islamists suddenly charged southward with a force of 800 to 900 fighters in 50 to 200 vehicles, taking over a frontier town that had been the de facto line of government control, according to General Ham and a Western diplomat. Worried that there was little to stop the militants from storming ever further into Mali, France-- for the second time in less than two years-- intervened with guns and bombs into a former African colony rent by turmoil.
By Monday, the African regional defense group, ECOWAS, will be sending troops to help Mali retake the northern half of the country from the Tuareg rebels and jihadi extremists. The Islamists are vowing to make France "pay the price" (and a French helicopter pilot died in the battle for Konna yesterday). We'll end this report with a propaganda film released by the rebels:

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