In an article for the HPR published in the late fall of 2012, I postulated a possible resolution to the conflict in northern Mali, namely, that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) would shoulder the brunt of the burden and send troops to the region known as Azawad, thereby ameliorating the situation in a manner similar to its involvement in previous conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia. I predicted that French involvement would probably be limited (albeit greater than that from other European nations). As it turned out, I underestimated the incredibly active role that has been played by France and its president, François Hollande.
On January 11, French forces commenced Opération Serval, following weeks of battles that culminated in the Islamists’ capture of Konna, a town in central Mali about 600 kilometers away from the capital of Bamako. The 2,150 French soldiers in Mali are working in tandem with approximately 2,000 troops from the UN-authorized ECOWAS force, known as the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA). As of January 31, these groups have recaptured the key northern town of Kidal. In addition, French troops now control the two other most important towns in the north: Gao and Timbuktu, and they have been battering the Islamists with air strikes, prompting what Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian calls a “turning-point” in the conflict. According to Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, they are beginning to prepare for the end of their involvement in the North African country.
François Hollande, the Soldier
However, it seems odd that France would contribute so many resources to Mali. True, it has traditionally maintained ties with its former colonies in the developing world, and it has various business interests in the region (particularly mining and energy companies such as the nuclear group Areva and construction corporations like Vinci). However, this Western-led, high profile intervention against Islamic fundamentalists appears eerily reminiscent to US and NATO involvement in Afghanistan. Certain differences are apparent: for instance, France has had a long involvement in Mali, the Malian government explicitly requested aid, French troops have largely been viewed positively by the public, and Mali’s relations to its neighbors are nothing like those between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But, there still seems to be a threat of a long, drawn-out, costly, and generally inefficient process, and many worry that the Sahel is becoming a haven for terrorists.
I’d like to posit a different comparison, however; rather than looking at Central Asia for parallels, we should instead consider the 2011 multi-state intervention in Libya following United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. Granted, Opération Harmattan (as it was known in France) did not involve any troops on the ground, but it was a focused mission with specific objectives, namely, the ouster of a specific group of bellicose North Africans (Muammar Gaddafi and his supporters). Whereas foreign troops remained in Afghanistan to continue fighting the Taliban even after the fundamentalists had generally been ousted from power from major cities, in both Libya and Mali the interventions appear to have been designed to end after pushing back the opposition. Of course, the future of French forces in Mali post-Kidal is not yet certain, but judging from the rhetoric of the French government, it seems that they are satisfied with the success of the mission.
Furthermore, whereas the conflict in Afghanistan soon lost popular support within the participating nations, both Libya and Mali have produced a boost in approval ratings for French heads of state who have suffered from domestic policy difficulties. In September 2011, whilst conducting his doomed campaign for re-election, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s approval rating jumped to a 12-month high—from 30 percent to 37 percent—with 72 percent of those polled by the Institut français d’opinion publique (IFOP) indicating their approval with his actions in Libya. Similarly, 63 percent of the French citizens polled support the intervention in Mali, which could provide a temporary boost in approval ratings for President Hollande, who is in dire need of a policy victory. One of his most notable campaign promises, a 75 percent top income-tax rate for the highest bracket, has been defeated in the courts, his approval rating had dipped to 40 percent, and over three hundred thousand took to the streets to protest his proposal to legalize gay marriage and adoption. After Opération Serval commenced, his approval rating increased by four points.
Here’s another notable comparison with foreign military intervention against Islamists: after Osama bin Laden was killed, Barack Obama’s job approval ratings jumped from 46 percent to 57 percent in one month, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.
A Temporary Fix
However, these boosts in approval ratings provide only a temporary respite. Sarkozy, despite being lauded for his actions in Libya, lost his reelection bid, largely because of domestic and Eurozone issues. President Obama’s popularity dipped during the summer after Osama bin Laden’s death, due in a large part to the debt ceiling impasse. These trends suggest that Hollande will only be able to ride the wave of successes for so long. Yet the effects of these foreign policies can remain in the public consciousness and contribute to electoral successes in the future. Obama used bin Laden’s death as a focal point in his campaign to demonstrate his expertise as a world leader and to convince voters of his ability to defend the United States. If Hollande plays his cards right, he could use his successes in Mali to prove his credentials to the French public in future political contests.
Image credit: nytimes.com