Ollie Makepeace writes from Timbuktu: The French Air Force is bombing what they think are Islamist sites in Mali. The British Royal Air Force (RAF) is flying in French supplies and personnel. Mission creep: will the UK element be reinforced? The French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian claims the French expedition is ‘developing favourably’.
But this is no push-over for the French. The Islamists are well armed and do not conform to the conventional tactics taught at L’Ecole Militaire in spite of the French experiences in South East Asia and Algeria. Here, just 15 miles north of the River Niger we have waited two weeks for the French to come into Mali. We all knew it was bound to happen: just a matter of time. So we waited and it’s playing out as we thought. It was assumed that immediate French ambitions were to halt rebel advances on the capital Bamako.
Most here said the rebels would fight tooth and nail for Diabaly, the front-line Mali army garrison – which is exactly what they did and for the moment they’ve got it. M. Le Drian seems, in his statements, somewhat surprised at these events, but people here simply predicted what would happen. This was no conventional attack and hold. The rebels were blasted out of the Mauritanian camps and so moved elsewhere and, as one observer noted, trickled into the Mali base town. No one believes the Islamists are not sitting ducks but all they have to do is move on.
What’s behind all this? Simple: French Intelligence supported by British and US spooks believe that the Islamists will not be content to hold Mali as some African version of Afghanistan. The French believe the rebels are even now preparing to assault urban targets in France itself. Britain too has increased security because terrorism is but a short hop across the English Channel. So who are the French afraid of?
The rebel groups are not known for exporting terrorism into mainland France but that is not to say they cannot do so. It is certain that others could attempt atrocities in the name of the former Algerian rebels now basing themselves in Mali and the border with Mauritania. So, it would be a very cavalier head of French security who ignored Abou Dardar, the al-Qaeda-linked rebel spokesman, when he said yesterday: ‘France has attacked Islam. We will strike in the heart of France.’
Which is why perhaps French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says the whole operation will only last a few weeks. Okay, so the French clean up. The Islamists push off. The French push off. The Islamists return. Then what do the French do? Maybe that will be guided by French public opinion. The French will very shortly turn against this action. The terrible events in Algeria live long in memories, even of those not born then. And this is no Libya – a relatively simple job.
The danger is that bun-head sympathisers can at least have a go at European capitals or even just major towns. Again, what does France do? Why it’s simple. They do an Afghanistan. They go in again (assuming they ever leave) seeking a clean-up and revenge.
The British will help – ostensibly just to train local militia and troops to defend their own territory. The utterly useless and mostly corrupt neighbouring ECOWAS troops should have gone in last September but did not because they cannot get their hands on funds earmarked by the EU and others for their intervention. They cannot be and never have been relied on.
So France stormed in as they did in Libya and the UK is meekly following France because they have a defence pact that says they have to. Also, the British RAF is desperate to find a justification for its massive budget and with the Afghanistan operation running down, anything – even Mali – will do.
It’s all a mess. The best thing to do in Africa when there’s killing to be done is to let Africans do it. It is something they often do across that dark continent. Let them get on with it.