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Mali and Chickens

By       Message Conn Hallinan       (Page 2 of 2 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink

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Like a Napoleon complex.

"The French, like the Americans, judge presidents on their ability to make tough decisions, and there are few tougher ones than to send young men into battle," writes New York Times  reporter Steve Erlanger in a story on French President Francois Hollande's decision to intervene in Mali. Titled, "Hollande, long seen as soft, shifts image with firm stance" (which makes it sound vaguely like a Viagra ad), the article quotes "defense expert" Francois Heisbourg praising Hollande for acting "decisively" and "demonstrating that he can decide on matters of war and peace."

Actually, back in 1812 that "war and peace" thing came out rather badly for the French, though today's new model Grande Armee won't face much in the way of snow and ice in Mali. But Mali is almost twice the size of France --478,839 vs. 211,209 square miles -- which is a lot of ground for Mirages to cover. In fact, the French warplanes are not even based in Mali, but neighboring Chad, some 1,300 miles away from their targets. That is a very long way to go for fighter-bombers and gives them very little time over the battlefield. Apparently the U.S. is considering helping out with in-air refueling, but, by any measure, the French forces will face considerable logistical obstacles.  And while Mali's geography may not match the Russian steppes in winter, its fierce desert is daunting terrain.

Lastly, Hollande would like to take some pressure off his domestic situation. There is nothing like a war to make people forget about a stagnant economy, high unemployment, restive workers, and yet another round of austerity cuts.

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But this war could get very nasty, and if you want the definition of a quagmire, try northern Mali. Instead of being intimidated by the French attacks, the insurgents successfully counterattacked and took the town of Diabaly in Central Mali. If Paris thought this was going to be a simple matter of scattering the wogs with a few bombing runs, one might suggest that Hollande revisit his country's past counterinsurgency campaigns, starting with Vietnam.

The Islamic groups appear to have little local support. Mali is a largely Islamic country, but not of the brand followed by the likes of Ansar al-Din or AQIM. But if you hand out lots of first-class fire power -- which is exactly what the war to overthrow Gaddafi did -- then you don't need a lot of support to cause a great deal of trouble.

The rebels are certainly not running into any opposition from the Mali Army, whose U.S.-trained leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, overthrew his country's democratic government two months after the Tuaregs came storming out of the Sahara to take Timbuktu. Apparently a number of those U.S.-trained troops switched sides, taking their weapons and transport over to the insurgents.

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There is evidence that the Mali Army may have provoked the Tuaregs in the first place. It appears that, rather than using the millions of dollars handed out by the U.S. over the past four years to fight "terrorism" in the region, the Mali Army used it to beat up on the Tuaregs. That is until the latter got an infusion of superior firepower after the fall of Gaddafi.

The French plan to put about 2,500 troops in Mali, but are relying on the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) to raise an army of 3,300. But the ECOWAS army will have to be transported to Mali and trained, and someone will have to foot the bill. That means that for the next several months it will be the French who hold down the fort, and that is going to cost a lot of Euros, of which France hardly has a sur.

The people of northern Mali have long-standing grievances, but the current crisis was set off by the military intervention in Libya. And if you think Libya created monsters, just think of what will happen if the Assad government in Syria falls without a political roadmap in place. Yes, the French are very involved in Syria right now, a civil war that is increasingly pitting Sunnis against Shites and has already spread into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Next to Syria's weapons hoards, Libya's firepower looks like a collection of muskets and bayonets.

Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister of France and a sharp critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, recently wrote in the Journal du Dimanche, "These wars [like Mali] have never built a solid and democratic state. On the contrary, they favor separatism, failed states and the iron law of armed militias."

So what do Mali and the French intervention have to do with chickens?

They always come home to roost.

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Conn M. Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus, "A Think Tank Without Walls, and an independent journalist. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. He oversaw the (more...)
 

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