Doing the Right Thing: French Intervention in Mali


In the midst of the international community’s foot-dragging and hesitation over forms of intervention in Syria, France dove right into Mali without much forewarning or discussion, providing in stark contrast a model of decisive, effective and absolutely justifiable intervention.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have strained our sensibilities over the question of whether it is wise for outsiders to interfere with a country’s inner turmoil. In the Mid-East cases, intervention generally unfolded into nightmarish quagmires. For Libya, with cautious hindsight, we concluded that it wasn’t a regrettable decision, but many minds were left impregnated with the ticklish and uncomfortable sensation that Libya can’t become an allow-all precedent. And thus intellectual, political and moral debates flourish over the Syrian case because, as experience shows, intervention is a deep, complex, and case-specific issue. Nevertheless, the French proved that sometimes you ‘gotta do what you gotta do’, just like they had to forcibly evict former Côte d’Ivoire president Laurent Gbagbo from the presidential palace after he refused to leave office in 2011.

For the French people, a basic distinction to be made is that the Mali case is quite different from capturing a petulant incumbent who tries to stay in power by force, which was the logic in the Côte d’Ivoire intervention. For the rest of the world, a basic distinction to be made is also that the Mali case is different from ‘Arab spring’-type conflicts, where homegrown insurgent forces can be aided in removing an oppressive dictator. This isn’t a scenario where we have to address the familiar concern of “we can remove [dictator X] but we don’t know who exactly the rebel forces are and we should be concerned about recognizing or arming them”, etc. etc.

French troops head for Mali (guardian)
French troops head for Mali. (guardian)

Mali is not currently ruled by an autocratic and suppressive regime. It is ruled by a civilian, democratic and tolerant regime. Has this regime been rather weak and shaky? Yes. Has it been vulnerable to military coups in the recent year? Yes. But somehow the civilian and democratic government persists throughout the high-level turmoil, and this is the model Mali must stick with. What French troops and the Malian army are jointly fighting against, on the other hand, is not a mysterious entity. They are fighting armed forces organized by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other terrorist groups that have spilled-over from Libya and who are after both territorial conquest and theocratic authority. These forces managed to take control of a large part of Northern Mali in the past year and have imposed Sharia law on a population that has traditionally practiced what at the strictest is a tolerant, moderate form of Islam. The Islamist forces have carried out public stoning, amputations, executions and bans of all sorts. The Malians in the north consider themselves “occupied by force” and many have fled the region in the past year. Over New Year’s, the French grew increasingly antsy as they watched the terrorist forces close in on Mali’s capital, Bamako. Letting Bamako fall meant running the risk of having the entirety of Mali become a hotbed for Islamic extremism and the local population ruled against its will. So France took action.

So far, so good. Naturally, we are talking about warfare and not surgery—we cannot expect French intervention in an African state nearly overrun by armed extremists to be clean, precise, rapid and painless. However, the French troops are faring very well in both pushing the enemy up north and carrying precision airstrikes that have done minimal damage to Malian civilians. Once again, we are pleasantly reminded of the technological advantage we enjoy in asymmetric conflict, but also know that deepening the involvement looms ahead. Indeed, France made the decision to send ground troops into Mali after a few days of airstrikes, which scatter the enemy but hardly weed it out. It seems extremely unlikely that France will carry intensive ground troop operations for more than a few months, but entrenchment is still a real risk. A second challenge has already produced a tragedy: retribution by Al-Qaeda or extremist forces in other parts of the world, which was the cause of the recent Algerian hostage crisis that left 37 hostages dead. The third and most pertinent challenge is the question of spillovers. When we intervened in Libya, some armed groups fled into Mali and are mostly responsible with fueling the current war. If France is indeed capable of pushing the extremist forces out of the northwestern borders, where will they go next? Mali has simply been the host of an external virus that might again spillover to, say, Niger—will we have to deal with a Mali 2.0?

A French flag hanging from a van in Bamako, Mali’s capital. (NYT)
A French flag hanging from a van in Bamako, Mali’s capital. (NYT)

Dispersion, arrests, extermination? We have yet to see how France addresses the spillover problem. For the moment, the big picture is fairly positive: had France not intervened in its former colony, Bamako would probably have fallen, Mali would probably have become the new Yemen. Although France is looking at hundreds of millions of euros in military expenditure and the risk of more terrorist retributions or other casualties, it has done the right thing; standing by and letting terrorist forces take hold of an entire country would have been, in the long term, exponentially more destructive.

Aube Rey Lescure ’15 is in Davenport College. She is a Globalist Notebook blogger on Europe. Contact her at