The French intervention in Mali follows the recent territorial gains by the Islamist extremist group Ansar Dine. The group had taken control of much of the north of the West African country (an area frequently referred to as being about the size of France) which culminated in the capture of the city of Konna. That was considered the maximum extent of the group’s reach so far.
The French had been discussing a training mission in Mali though they had ruled out any action until last September. The UN then called for an African led intervention just before Christmas. However, clearly the fast changing situation in Mali worried Paris enough that the French government felt that action was needed - though it seems likely that the French forces were already prepared for the eventuality of an interventional procedure.
But is this intervention justified? One look at the atrocities committed by Ansar Dine could well be enough to justify the action. From a strategic point of view the Al-Qaida linked group is certainly not an organisation the EU and neighbouring countries could want in control of vast areas of West Africa, potentially providing recruitment, training and shelter for extremist elements. Although the interim government’s legitimacy has been called into question because of the army’s coup in March 2012 it is still worth noting that the government has asked France for military intervention. Some people have asked, hinting at French hypocrisy, why France is intervening in Mali but did not do so in the Democratic Republic of Congo which also recently called on France for military intervention to help fighting the M23 rebels. I perceive the comparison as unfair: the M23 rebels have agreed to a ceasefire and peace talks, whereas this is a highly unlikely outcome in Mali especially whilst Ansar Dine is maintaining its control and influence. The intervention seems to have galvanised Mali’s neighbours into action: on Saturday Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal all committed themselves to send troops whilst the UK is supplying France with logistical support.
Could this be a model for future European interventions? Regardless of one's particular view on this intervention, it’s still worth examining its implementation. The French have managed to land a considerable military force close to Konna. They quickly captured Konna and have halted and are even reversing Ansar Dine’s gains, though the situation is unstable at the moment. With France’s strong military presence in West Africa, its forces on the ground already had air support and logistics in place to carry out this intervention so it is perhaps not going to be the exact example for any future European intervention. But there are several things in place in this instance that we should seek to replicate, in particular the future regional and global support. Without this kind of support there is no hope of a long term solution and even less for a viable exit strategy.
In this case I am in favour of the French intervention. As stated the nature of the Ansar Dine extremists (and the defeated Tuareg mercenaries who fled Libya after the defeat of Gaddafi) makes it very hard to defend, even for the most die-hard apologists and especially given their strength in the region. These said interventions aren't always the answer, we need to try diplomacy when possible. But to dismiss the possibility of intervention completely is just as extreme as consistently insisting on it. The operation in Mali bares similarities to Sierra Leone and in some aspects Libya: Should Europe be drawn more and more into similar situations it will be very important to learn the lessons of these modern conflicts. The real test for France will be to avoid mission creep and put a feasible exit strategy in place as soon as possible.