The military intervention launched in Mali by French President François Hollande, known as Operation Serval, began Thursday, 10 January. Its stated mission is to push back the advance of Islamist forces and assure the security of France’s 6000 citizens in the country. On Sunday 13 January, French planes struck Islamist militia targets in Gao and Léré, as well as a fuel and arms depot in Aghabo, 50 km from Kidal (see map below). Maliweb has reported that Islamist forces are withdrawing from all major towns formerly under their control, and regrouping near Tessalit, in Mali’s far north near the Algerian border. But the facts remain extremely uncertain and are likely to remain so for some time yet.
But some Islamists forces continue pushing south. In the Segou region, north of the Niger River, they have taken the small town of Diabaly, located in the Segou region, about 80 km south of the Mauritanian border and 30 km north of Niono (see below).
In Mopti, a city stricken by panic during last week’s Islamist offensive, calm has been restored and people are going about their daily routines, according to the regional governor interviewed by phone on state television (ORTM) Sunday.
Most of the French troops (400 of the 550 in Mali, according to the New York Times) are being deployed to Bamako, ostensibly to protect French citizens there, but probably also to safeguard Mali’s weak state apparatus against terrorist threats. Bamako is full of soft targets since security precautions, even at key government installations, are often lax. ORTM’s Saturday broadcast showed footage of the arrival of French forces at the Bamako airport, as well as the arrival of a delegation of Nigerian officers who will command an incoming multinational West African force. The government of Interim President Dioncounda Traoré declared a state of emergency on Friday, 11 January. This condition gives Mali’s military and police additional powers, including the ability to detain suspects without charge and ban public demonstrations. No curfew has yet been announced.
The state of emergency comes on the heels of protests in Bamako and Kati on 9 January, fomented by the radical opposition coalition MP22, which (as it’s been doing since the coup last March) is demanding a sovereign national conference, known as les concertations nationales, to establish a new system of government. In response to these demonstrations, schools in Bamako and Kati were ordered closed. MP22 is still demanding immediate concertations nationales (as reported Saturday by ORTM). Nonetheless, on Saturday the government announced that schools would reopen Monday.
In a televised address to the nation on Saturday (below), Dioncounda appeared to address his MP22 critics when he called upon “every Malian to renounce petty quarrels and put away their personal agendas, which uselessly weaken us, and confront in a patriotic manner the war that our enemies are imposing upon us.” He stated emphatically that every Malian must now consider him/herself “un soldat de la patrie” (a soldier of the fatherland).
Not all reactions to French military engagement in Mali have been positive. The Algerian press is particularly critical, and plenty of conspiracy theories have circulated, both in France and in Mali, about the French government’s “neocolonial” motives. French naysayers include a few prominent figures, most notably former foreign minister Dominique de Villepin. Nonetheless, Le Point reports broad political support at home for Hollande’s step.
In Bamako, the public’s reaction thus far has been overwhelmingly positive (see Jeune Afrique of 12 January, or Le Figaro or ORTM of 13 January). Newspaper editor Adam Thiam, under normal circumstances no fan of French policy, has published a gushing editorial in Le Républicain entitled “Hollande le Malien.” On state TV Sunday, one Bamako resident described Serval as France’s repayment of the sacrifices made by African colonial troops during the Second World War. Malians online express heartfelt gratitude to Hollande (still well liked in Mali’s capital for having ousted Nicolas Sarkozy, probably the least popular head of state among Bamakois in recent memory). Some are even taking up a collection to benefit the family of the French helicopter pilot killed in action on Friday.
The false air of normalcy that had prevailed for months in Bamako seems finally to have lifted. On Tuesday, 8 January, as battles raged in and around Konna, an astonished Bamako resident wrote on Malilink, “Since 6 p.m. I’ve been listening to Channel 2 [state radio]; they’re playing R&B and love songs while the country’s at war!” Following the state of emergency, however, government media have sought to mobilize the public, even urging Malians to wire money to a government bank account set up to accept private donations to the armed forces. After a blood drive was announced, ORTM reported on Sunday that over 1000 people showed up at one Bamako health center to donate. Such mass mobilizations, however, have exposed the incapacity of the Malian state: the national blood bank apparently could accommodate just 113 donors per day.
Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, head of Mali’s military reform commission but more importantly leader of the still-powerful junta, was shown on state TV over the weekend visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals in Bamako and Kati (the Malian military says its forces suffered 11 dead and 60 wounded during last week’s fighting), and reviewing the troops in Sévaré. The captain is still carrying his magic baton (and is that mudcloth beneath his combat blouse?), but has added a new fashion accessory — an automatic pistol strapped to his thigh. Sunday’s TV news showed him dispensing battlefield promotions, not usually the prerogative of a junior officer. Given the captain’s obdurate opposition to any foreign military presence in Mali, his compatriots’ warm embrace of Operation Serval puts him in a delicate position. Sanogo has expressed thanks to France but, as Thomas Hofnung recently wrote in Libération, he would have loved to get credit for ousting the Islamists with his own men, so the arrival of French and West African forces on Malian soil complicates his political ambitions.
Given the disaster that Hollande’s initiative managed to avert this past week, it’s hard not to be swept up by the wave of relief and optimism in Bamako. Yet many dangers lie ahead as foreign military forces step up their campaign in Mali. As Dominique de Villepin warns in an op-ed,
Wars never build up a solid and democratic state; on the contrary, they foster separatism, failed states, and the iron law of armed militias. Wars never offer a means to wipe out the terrorists swarming the region; on the contrary, they legitimize the most radical. Wars never bring about regional peace; on the contrary, western intervention enables everyone to discard their responsibilities.
One decade ago, de Villepin pointed out the risks and likely ill effects of George W. Bush’s proposed invasion of Iraq. That war solved one problem, only to create a thousand new ones. What’s the end game? What’s the exit strategy? How will mission success be defined? How can a stable state emerge from this process? Recent international military actions (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia) offer few encouraging answers to such questions. Here’s hoping the international community’s latest war somehow bucks this grim trend.
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