Over the weekend, French armed forces announced Operation Serval, an intervention against the Islamic extremists in breakaway northern Mali. This is likely to be a positive development on two fronts. First, northern Mali was becoming a potential source of global danger as an attractant for jihadists. The operation might not wipe them out, which is a shame, but it should make it harder for them to train and coordinate. Second, the intervention is being carried out by somebody other than the United States. Its global reach gives it some ability to address almost any security problem, but trying to address them all at once (as it often does) dissipates its strength. Mali is a former French colony and a member of the Francophonie, and it’s much closer to France than to the America. It also has stronger human ties to France, making instability and radicalization there particularly likely to reverberate against French regional interests and la Métropole itself. Some of the interventionist voices in Washington have been flogging Mali for months, but this has always been Paris’s problem. Expecting the party with the greatest interest to bear the greatest burden is not leading from behind.
That invites a second thought. Mali has more at stake in the conflict than France. What should its role be? Though the intervention in Libya stirred up the north, the failure to control its own territory or to manage the aspirations of the Tuaregs (who started the rebellion, only to be supplanted by radicals) must land squarely on the doorstep of the Presidential Palace in Bamako. Despite being a massive and divided country near a range of trouble spots, Mali has only a few thousand men under arms. This is hardly enough to exercise sovereignty in the north in a time of peace, let alone when there is active resistance. An expansion of the Malian military is clearly in everybody’s interests, and with unemployment at 30 percent, there should be no shortage of able men. If funding is an issue, the international community has an interest in providing it, with France and Mali’s ECOWAS neighbors again taking the lead.
The true problem may be maintaining discipline—despite years of American training programs, the army reacted to the Tuareg rebellion provoked rapid retreats and ultimately a coup. Many Tuareg officers left the army to join the rebels. Many of these probably now regret creating an opening for the extremists that are now terrorizing their homeland and destroying its cultural heritage. Mali’s leaders would be wise to draw attention to this, and to offer the Tuaregs a new national relationship in return for aid in driving out the fanatics.