Vive la France.
What else can one say to the news that the French are using their military might to push back al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels who have taken control of northern Mali–a vast region bigger than France itself? While the United Nations passed toothless resolutions and the U.S. expressed concern but did nothing, France’s President, Francois Hollande, acted. He has dispatched some 400 troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft to stop the rebel advance, which threatened to engulf the part of Mali still held by the ramshackle government. The U.S., UK, and other allies are providing non-lethal assistance, but it is very much a French show.
This could well be a harbinger of things to come: Given the “lead from behind” doctrine that animates the current American administration, and the declining defense capabilities of Britain, France may well be left as the Western power on the front lines of the fight against Islamist extremism. This move is certainly in keeping with France’s traditionally activist role in its former African colonies–something that Hollande promised to abandon but now seems to be embracing.
There are, however, sharp limits to French capabilities, which is why France is not intervening in Syria, much as it would like to: Bashar Assad’s regime is still powerful enough that it would require an American lead to take on its air defenses. France also lacks surveillance, airlift, and aerial refueling capabilities, all of which are being provided in Mali by the U.S., UK, and other European states.
Important as the French intervention is to block further advances by Malian extremists, France will find it harder to exit than to enter this conflict. Air strikes and the like can temporarily stymie a powerful army of guerrilla fighters but cannot defeat it. That requires boots on the ground for a prolonged period of time to reestablish control.
In Mali, the French hope that force will be provided by Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, which is moving up plans to deploy 2,000 peacekeepers. However, given the woeful historic performance of African peacekeeping forces in countries such as Somalia, it is clear that Ecowas, to be effective, will require considerable buttressing from France and other Western states for some time to come. France will also have to work with the U.S. and other states to train up and arm the ineffective armed forces of Mali itself–and to somehow avoid the fiasco of the last training program, run by the U.S., which resulted in units defecting to the Islamists and others overthrowing Mali’s elected leader.
That is undeniably a burden, and one that France would understandably prefer to avoid. But given the alternative–allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to gain control of a major African country–a long-term commitment would appear to be the lesser evil here.