Inside Story

What is France risking in Mali?

We ask if there is French support for the campaign in West Africa amid rebels’ warning it could be France’s Afghanistan.

The battle to retake the north of Mali has begun in earnest.

Hundreds of French troops have been deployed, and French airstrikes have already driven back Islamist rebels from the town of Konna. France moved swiftly when fighters swept south towards the capital, Bamako.

West African nations have also scrambled their troops, with soldiers from Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Nigeria being mobilised by the African bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Several rebel groups linked to al-Qaeda are operating in northern Mali, spread across the territory after a destabilising coup in Bamako nine months ago.

Francois Hollande, the French president, says he is battling a terrorist threat on Europe’s doorstep. He says the campaign in northern Mali will take as long as necessary.

[In] the context of ECOWAS and the African Union being unable to get its act together … the other African nations effectively gave the rebels a blank cheque; it told them where any action could take place and gave them a date by which they knew they could make advances and take up much more strongly defensible positions. This was a tactical suicide.”

– David Anderson, a lecturer in African politics

Hollande says the rebel presence is a major security threat: “France, at the request of the president of Mali, and respecting the United Nations’ charter, committed itself yesterday to support the Malian army against terrorist aggression that threatens all of West Africa …. Thanks to the courage of our soldiers, a halting blow was brought to bear and heavy losses were inflicted on our adversaries, but our mission is not accomplished.”

The fighters however, warn that the offensive will be France’s Afghanistan – and its downfall.

Sanda Ould Bouamama, a spokesperson for Ansar Dine, one of the groups the French are fighting, warned: “We have tanks, armoured vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, grad rocket launchers and other weapons. We’ve already managed to down a French aircraft, which everyone has now heard about. But know this, we fight the French with the same weapons as our brothers fought their invaders in Afghanistan and Iraq, our faith in God, by His will Azawad will be the Afghanistan of the region and France’s downfall.”

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine were the two major Tuareg groups involved in the takeover of the north of Mali.

The secular MNLA made the initial grab for territory after the coup last March, demanding an independent state for the Tuareg. But recently, it has been driven to the sidelines by Ansar Dine and has not been involved in the latest advances.

Ansar Dine says it is not fighting for independence but rather for Islamic law to be implemented across the country. It has close ties to other small groups including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) which also wants to introduce the sharia.

Both these groups are said to be linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

So, does France risk a prolonged campaign in Mali? And does the offensive have the support of the French people?

To discuss this, Inside Story with presenter Shiulie Ghosh is joined by guests: Emmanuel Dupuy, the president of the Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe; Amel Boubekeur, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center whose research focuses on North African politics; and David Anderson, a professor of African politics at the University of Warwick.

“It’s true that Hollande as the new president has also to invent a new foreign policy toward Africa. If you look at territories like Mali or other African countries, France has to some extent lost its predominance, so it has to find a new role to play … But the much more important thing for France is to be able to convey a major political dialogue within the various factions in Mali, and that’s not going to be easy.”

Amel Boubekeur, an expert on political Islam