Matt Bacon Sports Editor
The battle against Islamic extremism and terrorism has taken up a new front. For a couple of years, the West has turned a naïve blind eye towards growing Islamic extremism in North Africa. While once confined to concentrated areas of the continent like Somalia, al-Qaeda and their affiliates have taken advantage of the instability of the Arab Spring, and in countries like Libya, which no longer has strongman Moammar Gaddafi to keep order; the violent Islamic extremist movement has taken hold.
Mali, a country in Western Africa, has seen the worst repercussions of the spreading jihad. Several jihadi groups took advantage of an ethnic uprising and secured control of the northern portion of the country, attempting to instill Sharia law in all of the captured areas. When the militants threatened to move on the capital, Bamako, France decided to intervene to help protect their former colony, and prevent it from becoming a haven for international terrorism.
The French, to this point, have made excellent progress in Mali. City after city has fallen to French forces, most recently Timbuktu. But on Monday, French President Francois Hollande made a somewhat alarming and rushed statement when he told the press “We are winning in Mali.” While this is not a lie, Mr. Hollande may have wanted to analyze the situation a little closer before making such a bold statement. While this sounds like a success and convenience to the French, this can seriously come back to haunt them.
Al-Qaeda and their affiliates are a relatively diverse, loosely consolidated movement in which many branches differ in ideology and tactics. But if there is one thing that unites the global jihadist movement, it is its willingness to fight to the death. These men are not fleeing in fear of French arms, for these men fear nothing. It is a military strategy. By fleeing into the desert, the militants are thumbing their noses at the French, saying “come and get us, we’re waiting for you.”
In order to analyze the current Malian quagmire, Mr. Hollande need look no farther than the American invasion of Iraq. The organized military of Iraq fell in little more than a month. American forces remained in the country for another eight brutal years of rampant civil strife on Islamic jihad. As Americans, of course, we all remember George Bush’s famous, over the top, “Mission Accomplished” speech, which eventually came back to bite him in the rear.
The Iraq War had two phases: the invasion phase, in which American forces and their allies fought the organized Iraqi Army; and the post-invasion phase, in which the same forces battled Islamic insurgency and a country teetering on the edge of civil war for years. There is a very good chance that the battle in Mali may turn out the same way. While the citizens of Mali seem to be generally united against the militants, an advantage we did not have in Iraq, the basic framework is still there.
The militants in Mali have shown no signs of being any less resilient than their counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the French are forced out in the desert to exterminate these jihadi groups, they will be at the classic disadvantage of an invading nation. Northern Mali is predominantly desert, and the men defending it know it well. While the harsh, unaccommodating countryside will be unfamiliar to the French forces fighting there, the militants fighting them, or at least many of their commanders, are very familiar with the nooks and crannies of the desert.
The French are being pulled into a desert, guerilla-style battle in what may be the definitive conflict in the fight against militant Islam in North Africa. Is Mr. Hollande blind to this possible reality, his ego inflated by the so far outrageous success of his nation’s campaign? Or is he just playing the game, catering to what his constituents wish to hear. One would hope a leading global political power would not be so naïve, but then again, he wouldn’t be the first one.
Gareth Jones Asst. International Editor
The French have been known in the past to be less enthusiastic towards American foreign directives than our other close allies. They opposed the initial UN Resolution proposing an invasion of Iraq, and have been on and off with their support for our various subsequent operations in the official “War on Terror.” Those of you who are old enough may recall the short-lived boycott of French goods in the United States in 2003, dreamt up in an admirable attempt to increase public opinion of the invasion. The boycott was a double-edged sword; the French would suffer for their lack of cooperation, and the American public could identify with the “US versus THEM” mentality, waging war in the grocery store instead of the caves of Mesopotamia.
The democratic principles behind attempting to bully a more-than-less friendly nation into submission through sudden economic chastity not withstanding, the cause was taken up by millions of Americans. Despite initial enthusiasm however, the only real consequence of the boycott was the total fiscal salvation of San Pellegrino sparkling water, who waged their latest commercial advance on American markets just in time to compete directly with the former oligarch of bubbly water, the French Perrier. Furthermore, considering that in the first years of the last decade, the infamous Silvio Berlusconi had turned Italy’s foreign policy from Arab-friendly to American lackey. Perhaps the boycott was not a total failure after all.
Regardless of the boycott, the French have been critical of what some call American Neo-colonialism, more so than most other allies. The irony has run particularly deep these past two weeks, as the French have dug themselves deeper and deeper into the current political mess in West Africa, which is almost entirely composed of struggling nations which were once French colonies.
Thankfully, the situation appears to have been brought under control, and a French-Malian coalition of forces retook Timbuktu yesterday afternoon, receiving a hero’s welcome from inhabitants. They arrived not before Islamist rebels burned a library full of irreplaceable manuscripts dating back as far as the 13th century, but the reclaiming of the city is nonetheless a step in the right direction.
But why has France chosen to lead this intervention, when in the past it has frowned upon others much like it? The colonial connection is obvious, but outdated. Mali, like most of her neighbors in the Saharan region of Northwest Africa gained independence from France 53 years ago, which in the minute-by-minute field of international affairs may as well be a thousand. Of course, France has good deals going with most countries in the area as far as trade is concerned, but these nations are mostly landlocked dessert wastelands without even the crudest of oil lying around.
Trade from them involves agriculture more than anything, and France is not going to make or break its budget on North African wheat and dairy products. So why the million dollar operation? Some claim that the fairly newly elected President Hollande is trying to play the good guy by interfering, and they may be right. Despite serious setbacks involving a hostage crisis run by a one eyed cigarette smuggler named “Mr. Marlboro” (I kid you not, Google it) the French intervention has been a success.
So it seems that Hollande is to be congratulated, because regardless of his motivation, he made a good call that resulted in good press for French foreign policy. Our own political regime could learn a few things from the new French leader after all.