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Case Analysis 17 February, 2013

France's Recent Military Intervention in Mali


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

French President François Hollande arrived in the city of Timbuktu on February 2, 2013, twenty-two days after the beginning of the French military intervention Mali. His visit was an explicit declaration of victory for the French military effort which, with the support of the Malian army and the forces sent by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), had succeeded in the operation (codenamed "Wild Cat" by France) to retake control of the major cities which had fallen to Islamist extremists allied to Tuareg rebels. Yet Hollande, speaking in the Malian capital Bamako at the end of his visit, said that French forces in Mali would remain in place so long as there was a need for them. The French President also claimed that the war to drive Islamist extremist groups from the cities in the north of Mali was not yet over.

For decades, the north of Mali has been the scene of a conflict where armed Tuareg rebels have battled the state authorities. The rebellion is rooted in ethnic-political demands which developed into a separatist movement. A turning point was reached in 2012 when armed Islamist extremists joined the rebellion. In the following year, France, together with other Western powers and the ECOWAS states, took the Malian government's side in its war against the Islamists who had wrested control of the north of Mali. This paper examines the Malian crisis and the factors which have contributed to its development; it also examines the motivations behind the French military intervention, and presents a forecast for the shape of the future now that French forces and their allies have recaptured the cities of north Mali.


Rebellion in the North of Mali

Instability and rebellion are perennial features of Malian political life. Periods of drought and extreme poverty intensify this situation, in which the political scene has been overshadowed by struggles for power, taking the shape of successive coups d'état and dictatorships. This combined with social upheaval and economic fragility have resulted in Mali being ranked as one of the ten poorest countries on the globe.[1] During the decades following independence, the social and economic map of Mali has been defined by a line dividing the north from the south. The north, with its main cities of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, has been the most afflicted by drought and the least developed. Mali's capital meanwhile is located in the south of the country, where the main economic activity is also concentrated.

In addition to the social and economic differences between the two parts of Mali, a number of other factors have also played into the successive crises which have gripped the country. One notable such factor is that the population, which stands at 14.5 million, is extremely ethnically diverse.[2] Mali's remarkably ethnically diverse population is the result of the way in which the French drew the boundaries of "French Sudan," most of which now forms part of present-day Mali. France's demarcation of boundaries between its eight West African colonies in 1895 was not based on any ethnic homogeneity of the groups living within them, but rather on the natural wealth which each enjoyed, and the extent of French control over them. Most of the rebellions launched by the Tuareg since Mali gained independence five decades ago took place in the years from 1990 to 2009.

Two further major factors have fed the instability of the modern state of Mali. An economic and social disparity exists between the two major regions of Mali, and northeners-especially the Tuareg-have long felt that development programs have favored the south at their expense. At the very least, the Tuareg have perceived that development policies have failed more starkly in the north than in the south. The second factor exacerbating the instability is the domination of the seat of power by one particular ethnic group, the Mandé, feeding the sense of estrangement on the part of the Tuareg and the other ethnic minorities in the north, who have come to view the central state as the representative of a single ethnic group or tribe which dominates the others. To these groups, the state is interchangeable with the Bambara, a Mandé tribe, who have dominated state institutions since independence in 1960.[3] Not only has the present-day state of Mali failed in its attempts to develop economically in a balanced way across all of its regions, but it has also failed deplorably to create an inclusive national identity which encompasses all its citizens regardless of ethnic and tribal identities.

Attempted Tuareg rebellions throughout the past century and during the first ten years of this millennium, have led to a number of peace agreements between the rebels and the central government. The period immediately following the last agreement, signed in 2009, was one of relative calm which lasted until the latest uprising broke out in January, 2012. This latest rebellion differs in a number of crucial ways from those which preceded it.

Firstly, the rebellion is the accumulated result of an alliance between Mali-based Tuareg movements and Islamist extremists from a number of countries (Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria) who have been active in Tuareg areas, and have succeeded in winning over a number of Tuareg groups to their agenda. They have also made use of the weapons caches in the possession of Tuareg fighters who formed part of the Qaddafi regime's forces before its fall. Rather than an instantaneous product emerging from the rebellion of 2012, armed Islamist groups and Tuareg separatist movements formed bonds of mutual reliance and self-interest rooted in economic and security affairs over the past few years. One transformation which facilitated the birth of such an alliance was the rise of the Tuareg, Salafi and Jihadist group known as the Ansar Dine into one of the most influential groups active in Tuareg areas.[4]

Secondly, none of the peace agreements signed between the Malian central government and the Tuareg movements, which predate this latest rebellion and which were sponsored by other states in the region, particularly Algeria, could be sustained. This is due to the fact that they do not form part of a comprehensive political process in Mali, and produce no positive results for the residents of the north. No proposals for peace agreements between the two parties were made over the past four years; in fact, the arbitrators of the 2009 agreement neglected its implementation. As a result of this inaction, efforts at mediation in 2012, whether by Algeria or by ECOWAS, came at a time when they were no longer useful, since developments on the ground by then favoured the rebellion. Added to this is the change in the ranks of those taking part in the rebellion: participants in this latest rebel movement differ from those of previous rebellions. The leadership of extremist Islamist groups, as well as the Salafi wing of the Tuareg rebels, such as Ansar Dine, all of whom have become influential players in this rebellion, show no interest in the possible results of a peace settlement for the people of northern Mali. Even when such mediation efforts did take place, they were entirely fruitless: the Mali-based Tuareg movements who presumably would be parties to such a discussion are now entirely powerless, following their loss of control over the territory they held, to extremist Islamist movements.

Finally, this latest rebel movement took place at a time when the government of Mali was at its weakest. Even members of the Malian military took part in anti-government protests which erupted in March of 2012. Following a military coup on March 22, which deposed former President Amadou Toumani Touré, the main characteristic of politics in Bamako was a struggle over power in the context of a fragile balance of forces between civilian politicians and the military personnel who were part of the junta. Notably, there is no fundamental conflict between these two groups on the question of relying on French military intervention: both support it.


French Intervention to Bolster Influence

French military intervention in Mali did not come as a surprise; the country was one of the international players most deeply involved in the Malian crisis since it began at the outset of 2012. France had been the major player responsible for internationalizing the discussion on the Malian crisis, and behind the issuing of three UN Security Council Resolutions, under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter.[5] French political pressure was also the decisive factor which drove ECOWAS to send its forces to Mali, with the aim of preserving the state's territorial integrity.

France's approach to the Mali conflict was primarily to bring it to an international level, mustering regional and international support for the government in Bamako. The French also relied on the military efforts of the ECOWAS member states, and provided their forces with logistical, financial and advisory support. While there may have been a multiplicity of factors and an overlap of regional/domestic interests bringing the other ECOWAS members to act in Mali; one of the main incentives for them to do so remained the accomplishment of France's mission and vision in its former colony.

It is possible that France would have been satisfied to see the ECOWAS forces act alone, if those forces had been able to conclude the battle decisively. In other words, France would have been content to see other forces to fight a proxy war on its behalf, and accomplish its goals and vision in the Malian crisis, without directly involving its forces directly in the fighting. Faced with the possibility that its proxies could fail to achieve its aims-especially given that Islamist groups had consolidated their rule in the north of Mali and were preparing to move south and target the capital-France's role transformed from that of primary but indirect player, to one of direct intervention through the use of military strength.

Direct French military intervention in Mali followed the declaration of a state of emergency, and an official request for military aid came from the government in Bamako.[6] This allowed France to justify its action as being an effort to help a friendly state, and not one which disregarded Malian sovereignty. France was also able to claim that it was fighting to drive out Islamist extremist groups, thus making its actions part of the War on Terror, an expression which, although ephemeral and ambiguous, remains an acceptable justification for intervention in the international arena, at a time when a number of extremist groups in a variety of countries have been attacked. Such actions no longer create crises or even raise questions in the world order, regardless of what this implies in terms of the violation of the sovereignty of a number of independent states.

Leaving aside all of the justifications which France gives for its military intervention, there are a number of other factors which, taken together, explain French involvement in Malian affairs more broadly. Most importantly, France has never been far removed from West African political affairs, including in Mali. Over the previous decades, France has played a role in supporting certain political regimes at times, and supporting their opponents at others. Without doubt, France views West Africa as falling within its sphere of geopolitical influence, where it can make an impact through its relations with the political regimes of the countries in the region or with specific political movements there. This is a policy which has been described with the word "Françafrique".[7]

France's recent military intervention in Mali was thus not the first time the country meddled in African affairs: since 1960, France has intervened more than 40 times in internal conflicts and crises in its former African colonies. A quick review of the justifications given for France's previous military interventions suggest that they cannot all be grouped together into one analytical framework: previous French interventions have had the goal of aiding authoritarian or dictatorial regimes, while at other times they have taken place for the benefit of democratic transitions. On other occasions, the French have intervened for the benefit of one political party over another. While the justifications have changed, France's interests have always been the unchanging motive for French intervention in Africa.

French economic interests in West Africa provide a further explanatory factor for its actions in the region, including in the latest crisis in Mali. While France's direct economic interests in Mali are extremely limited compared to its economic interests in other countries-a result of the relatively minor level of French investments there-Mali  remains an important part of a region in which France is very active economically. Thus, threats to Mali's stability are also a threat to French economic interests in neighboring countries such as Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast.[8] Mali's vital importance to France comes into focus when we take into account the presence of uranium mines in Niger which supply French nuclear power stations, and which are located along the border between Mali and Niger.[9]

French intervention in Mali must also be understood in the context of France's history of going on the offensive in Africa, a policy it has been following over the past several years, as part of its competition for influence on the continent with the other great powers.  France's power in Africa had come under threat of collapse during the Bush presidency from 2000 to 2008, during which the US pursued a wide-ranging interventionist policy with multiple objectives in Africa. In addition to the goal of bolstering of US political and military influence, its aims included the diversification of US sources of energy and the protection of maritime energy transit routes which pass by the African coastline (such as the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden and the Cape of Good Hope). 

US methods in achieving this policy have been multi-faceted, including the provision of economic aid, security coordination, and the establishment of military bases.[10] France reacted to American policy with a combination of defensive stances, an acceptance of the reality on the ground and a "wait-and-see" approach. Later, France exploited the Obama administration's less expansionist policies in Africa to take up a more aggressive, military approach which would solidify its influence and power base on the continent. If the example of the latest intervention in Mali is anything to go by, this policy faces no strong criticism from the French elite or the public at large.[11] Observers who follow statements by French politicians and the French press conclude that French interventionist policy in Africa enjoys near-unanimous domestic support. Such competition in the security sphere takes the utmost significance when one considers the fact that rivalry between the great powers for economic influence is being quite certainly decided in favor of China which, since 2009, has been Africa's biggest trading partner.

French direct military intervention in Africa, and its latest instance in Mali, reflects-regardless of whatever explanations France provides-French reliance on a complex of three interacting and complex strategies which aim to protect the country's influence in Africa at a time when it is competing with other great powers. The first of these rests on France's historical and structural relations with some of the regimes, political movements and economic and cultural elites in the countries in question. The second is the expansion and deepening of existing economic relations with those countries. The third is the French military and security strategy which, in certain instances, may develop into a direct military intervention.

While France may have resorted to direct military intervention in Mali to achieve its vision of a resolution to the crisis while maintaining its influence and interests, what is remarkable is the absence of any international or regional opposition to this. Given that there is not even a modicum of understanding between the great powers on the question of interventions in a number of different crises around the world, French intervention in Mali would theoretically have faced some sort of opposition, or at least been faced with hesitation on the part of the major players in the current world order. Yet the responses of the great powers suggests the opposite: the international community supported French intervention, and Russia even offered to provide France with military support.[12] France's success in winning international approval was evidenced by a recent international conference on Mali, which had the clear objective of turning the ECOWAS forces in that country into a United Nations force.[13]


The Political Process and the Future of Security in the Region

France's military intervention has succeeded in achieving at least two of its stated aims: ending the advance of Islamist extremist groups towards the south, where they could threaten the Malian capital of Bamako; and the liberation of the cities in the north, pushing the rebels into the mountainous, unruly terrain in the north-east of the country, along the border with Algeria. These groups may carry out guerilla attacks against the French forces and the ECOWAS auxiliaries, just as they might be able to carry out attacks against sensitive targets in the oil, gas and mining industries within Mali's geographic neighborhood and along the Sahel. The attack against the Algerian In Amenas natural gas installation in January, 2013, provides an example of what such attacks may look like in the future. 

While President Hollande may have declared that France's actions enjoyed the support of the people of Mali, the European Union and the international community, and that its forces would therefore not fall into another "quagmire" in Mali after the departure of French troops from Afghanistan, there are still two requirements which must be fulfilled for the French and allied African forces to succeed. The first of these rests on the fate of the Tuareg rebel groups, while the second lies in finding a just and complete solution, through a political process, to Tuareg demands. The necessary process would allow for the creation of a democratic system which could encompass all sectors of Malian society and especially the Tuareg, who have long suffered marginalization and exclusion.

In terms of the first of these requirements, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a Tuareg group, rushed to offer its services to French forces and their African allies, giving help to pursue the members of Islamist extremist groups. Indeed, the NMLA recently announced the capture of a number of prominent members of the Salafi and Tuareg group Ansar Dine, as well as members of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa; the members were apprehended on the border with Algeria before being handed over to the French. Additionally, a number of the leaders of the Ansar Dine movement broke away and formed their own movement called the "Movement of Islamic Azawad" in protest to the links with Al Qaeda, an association they wanted to absolve themselves of.

With regards to the second of these requirements, it is still too early to judge the Malian government's motives, or its capacity to build a new relationship with the Tuareg. Yet the failure of all of its previous attempts to find a just political solution to this stalemate does not bode well for the future. This is especially true given the reprisals by the Malian military against members of the Tuareg and Arab ethnic groups during their recapture of territory in the north. It is noteworthy that the NMLA took advantage of the French military intervention to reestablish a presence in its traditional stronghold of Kidal, turning itself into an effective actor in the northeast of Mali, following its expulsion from the area by Islamist extremists. There is no indication that the NMLA has given up on its earlier demand for independence, which it affirmed anew with its insistence that Malian forces not be allowed into the city of Kidal when French and ECOWAS forces entered. The first indications thus do not point to an end in the conflict between the central government in Bamako and Tuareg groups in the northeast of Mali. With the deeply rooted lack of mutual trust, the chasm between the two sides has yet to be bridged. As such, it is not unlikely that the situation will explode again in the future, creating new fronts in neighboring countries; the Tuareg community is not limited to Mali alone, but rather is spread through Niger, Libya and Algeria. Tuareg alliances with armed extremist groups or other foreign powers remains a viable option for future deliberations.

One other feature which emerges from this situation is the importance of the role which the states of the Arab Maghreb should play in ending the conflict at their southern border, and their need to acknowledge the negative role which they played in the crisis. They engaged in internecine struggles instead of unifying their efforts and forming a common security policy which all of the Arab Maghreb states could adopt towards sub-Saharan Africa. Such a policy would form part of the wider concept of Arab national security.

It would have been more appropriate if the Arab Maghreb states, and especially Algeria, had taken the lead in ending the Malian crisis. After all, Algeria had spearheaded the efforts to create a unified military leadership for African Sahel countries, tasked with preventing foreign military intervention. The headquarters of this joint command are based in the Algerian region of Tamanrasset. Oddly enough, this institution failed to carry out its mandate.

One should also not forget that the roots of the latest crisis in the north of Mali lie not only in domestic factors, but also in a number of regional factors spread throughout the Arab Maghreb. The presence of Islamist extremists in the Sahel region is the result of the Algerian civil war and that country's political conflicts, of foreign intervention during the Libyan revolution, and of the widespread availability of weapons in the region-which itself had made possible the ascendancy of the Islamists at the beginning of 2012. The Arab Maghreb states must play their role in advancing Mali's political process, and launching development projects within that country. Such efforts should also be part of a comprehensive approach to the security of the Arab nation as a whole, an approach which does not stop at the Arab Homeland's boundaries.

Given the nature of the extremist Islamist groups and their lack of a local popular support base-unlike the Taliban, who enjoy deep-rooted support amongst the tribal Pashtun in Afghanistan-the French-led military operation may achieve its goals of expelling these groups, in the short term. In the long-term, meanwhile, the return of stability to Mali and the Sahel is contingent on the sincerity and comprehensiveness of any political process, and the establishment of an overall policy of development with both regional and international backing.

With regards to France, its recent military intervention in Mali can be seen through the lens of the domestic French consensus, which points to the fact that the policy of a "hegemonic France" in Africa remains alive and well despite Hollande's declaration that the colonialist days of "Françafrique" were consigned to the past.[14]


* This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here



[1]  "The Poorest Countries in the World," Global Finance, http://www.gfmag.com/tools/global-database/economic-data/12147-the-poorest-countries-in-the-world.html#axzz2J0R95G6Q.

[2] While sources differ on the estimated numbers, all agree that the Mandé, who monopolize political power in the country, are the largest ethnic group in Mali, and account for around half of the population. This group includes a number of tribes and sub-groups such as the Bambara. Other ethnic groups include the Fulani, Voltaic, Songhai, and Bobo. The Tuareg, of Berber descent, are grouped together with ethnic Arabs and account for no more than 10% (at most) of the population of Mali, a figure comparable to other ethnic groups in the country.

[3] André Bourgeot, "Identité Touarègue: De l'Aristocratie à la Révolution," Études rurales, no. 120 (Oct. - Dec., 1990), p. 146.

[4] Ansar Dine is a separatist Tuareg movement with Salafi Islamist leanings. The group was founded by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a scion of one of the leading tribal families of the Ifogas Tuareg tribes. Ag Ghaly had been a prominent leader of the Tuareg rebellion in Mali in 1990, at a time when he was more known for leftist-nationalist tendencies rather than any Islamist connections. Ag Ghaly also took part in Tuareg rebellions in 1995, 1996 and 2006. Following an agreement with the Malian government which brought the 2006 rebellion to an end, Ag Ghaly was appointed a Consul for Mali in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Following his espousal of Salafi ideology and his return to Mali, Ag Ghaly was able to attract a wide number of supporters both from within his own tribe and other Tuareg tribes, who had become steeped in Salafi ideology. 

[5] See UN Security Council Resolution 2056, adopted on July 5, 2012, on "Peace and Security in Africa," a number of the clauses of which refer to the situation in Mali; UNSC Resolution 2071 on Mali, adopted on October 12, 2012; and UNSC 2085 on Mali, adopted on December 20, 2012.

[6] French military planes carried out the first bombing missions against Islamist extremists, who were on their way to the south of Mali, on January 11, 2013. Following that, France deployed a ground force of 2,500 troops which was joined by 3,000 soldiers from Mali and other ECOWAS countries.

[7] Felix Houphouet-Boigny, former President of the Ivory Coast, was the first to coin the term "Françafrique," in 1955, at a time when African countries were debating the alternatives of either full independence or autonomy under French auspices. Houphouet-Boigny, who was one of several leaders who wanted to maintain "special relations" between the Ivory Coast and France, cast the term in a positive light. In 1998, François-Xavier Verschave used the same term in a book describing France's "scandalous" policies in Africa, which included its support of dictatorships and support of mercenaries in order to carry out coups d'état and assassinations.

See: François-Xavier Verschave, La Françafrique: Le Plus Long Scandale de la République (Paris : Éditions Stock, 1998).

[8] Despite claims by certain parties about Mali's reserves of oil and gas, there are no definite figures on the results of exploration activities on the part of France's Total and Italy's Eni or Algeria's Sonatrac. See Tarik Ramadan, "Le Mali, la France et les Extrémistes," Tarik Ramdan's blog, 17/1/2013, http://www.tariqramadan.com/spip.php?article12693&lang=fr.

[9] Uranium mines in the Niger provide 50% of the raw material for France's nuclear power plants.

[10] This new approach began at the outset of the new millennium, with the adoption in the US Congress of the "Africa Growth and Opportunity Act" in 2000. This was followed by the drafting of an Africa strategy in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. A large US military base in Djibouti hosts around 2,000 soldiers, and the Americans have also received the approval of a number of African countries which would allow US forces use of their air- and seaports. See the comments made by former AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham on the expansion of the US military presence on the  continent: Luis Ramirez, "US Military Expands Presence in Africa," Voice Of America, 25/6/2012, http://www.voanews.com/content/us-military-africa/1249035.html.

[11] France's political parties, from both the Right and the Left, have rallied around President Hollande and his decision to send French forces to Mali. The only dissenting voice of Green Party parliamentarian Noel Mamère, whose view was that the latest intervention is evidence of a continuation of France's colonialist policies. Mamère's comments on the crisis can be read in full here (in French): http://www.francebleu.fr/politique/noel-mamere-contre-l-intervention-au-mali-255347.

[12] Pierre Avril, "Mali: Moscou promet une aide militaire à la France," Le Figaro (France), 18/1/2013, http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/mali-moscou-promet-une-aide-militaire-a-la-france.php.

[13] "Support Grows for UN Force in Mali," Reuters, 5/2/2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/05/us-mali-talks-idUSBRE91414U20130205.

[14] President Hollande, declared during an October, 2012 visit to Senegal that the age of French "domination of the African continent" (or, "Francafrique") was over.  See "François Hollande à Dakar : ‘Le temps de la Françafrique est révolu,'" Le Monde, 12/10/2012, http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2012/10/12/hollande-exprime-sa-grande-confiance-dans-le-senegal-et-l-afrique_1774886_3212.html.