Apparently, it's a no-brainer. Mali holds 15.8 million people -- with a per capita gross domestic product of only around US$1,000 a year and average life expectancy of only 51 years -- in a territory twice the size of France (per capital GDP $35,000 and upwards). Now almost two-thirds of this territory is occupied by heavily weaponized Islamist outfits. What next? Bomb, baby, bomb.
So welcome to the latest African war; Chad-based French Mirages and Gazelle helicopters, plus a smatter of France-based Rafales bombing evil Islamist jihadis in northern Mali. Business is good; French president Francois Hollande spent this past Tuesday in Abu Dhabi clinching the sale of up to 60 Rafales to that Gulf paragon of democracy, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The formerly wimpy Hollande -- now enjoying his "resolute," "determined," tough-guy image reconversion -- has cleverly sold all this as incinerating Islamists in the savannah before they take a one-way Bamako-Paris flight to bomb the Eiffel Tower.
French Special Forces have been on the ground in Mali since early 2012.
The Tuareg-led NMLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), via one of its leaders, now says it's "ready to help" the former colonial power, billing itself as more knowledgeable about the culture and the terrain than future intervening forces from the CEDEAO (the acronym in French for the Economic Community of Western African States).
Salafi-jihadis in Mali have got a huge problem: they chose the wrong battlefield. If this was Syria, they would have been showered by now with weapons, logistical bases, a London-based "observatory," hours of YouTube videos and all-out diplomatic support by the usual suspects of US, Britain, Turkey, the Gulf petromonarchies and -- oui, monsieur -- France itself.
Instead, they were slammed by the UN Security Council -- faster than a collection of Marvel heroes -- duly authorizing a war against them. Their West African neighbors -- part of the ECOWAS regional bloc -- were given a deadline (late November) to come up with a war plan. This being Africa, nothing happened -- and the Islamists kept advancing until a week ago Paris decided to apply some Hollandaise sauce.
Not even a football stadium filled with the best West African shamans can conjure a bunch of disparate -- and impoverished -- countries to organize an intervening army in short notice, even if the adventure will be fully paid by the West just like the Uganda-led army fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia.
To top it all, this is no cakewalk. The Salafi-jihadis are flush, courtesy of booming cocaine smuggling from South America to Europe via Mali, plus human trafficking. According to the UN Office of Drugs Control, 60% of Europe's cocaine transits Mali. At Paris street prices, that is worth over $11 billion.
General Carter Ham, the commander of the Pentagon's AFRICOM, has been warning about a major crisis for months. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. But what's really going on in what the New York Times quaintly describes as those "vast and turbulent stretches of the Sahara"?
It all started with a military coup in March 2012, only one month before Mali would hold a presidential election, ousting then president Amadou Toumani Toure. The coup plotters justified it as a response to the government's incompetence in fighting the Tuareg.
The coup leader was one Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who happened to have been very cozy with the Pentagon; that included his four-month infantry officer basic training course in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2010. Essentially, Sanogo was also groomed by AFRICOM, under a regional scheme mixing the State Department's Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership program and the Pentagon's Operation Enduring Freedom. It goes without saying that, in all this "freedom" business, Mali has been the proverbial "steady ally" -- as in counterterrorism partner -- fighting (at least in thesis) al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Over the last few years, Washington's game has elevated flip-flopping to high art. During the second George W Bush administration, Special Forces were very active side by side with the Tuaregs and the Algerians. During the first Obama administration, they started backing the Mali government against the Tuareg.
An unsuspecting public may pore over Rupert Murdoch's papers -- for instance, The Times of London -- and its so-called defense correspondent will be pontificating at will on Mali without ever talking about blowback from the Libya war.
Muammar Gaddafi always supported the Tuaregs' independence drive; since the 1960s the NMLA agenda has been to liberate Azawad (North Mali) from the central government in Bamako.
After the March 2012 coup, the NMLA seemed to be on top. They planted their own flag on quite a few government buildings, and on April 5 announced the creation of a new, independent Tuareg country. The "international community" spurned them, only for a few months later to have the NMLA for all practical purposes marginalized, even in their own region, by three other -- Islamist -- groups; Ansar ed-Dine ("Defenders of the Faith"); the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO); and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).