von Thomas von der Osten-Sacken
The intervention was necessary. The drama of the Islamist offensive should not be underestimated – a successful assault on Sevaré would have meant the loss of the only airstrip in Mali capable of handling heavy cargo planes, apart from that in Bamako. This would have made any future military operation a nightmare for west African or other friendly forces, and it would have chased tens of thousands of civilians from their homes. After Sevaré, nothing would have stopped an Islamist advance on Segou and Bamako, although it is not clear whether the Islamists would have any strategic interest in investing Mali’s sprawling and densely populated capital. Still, many Bamakois feared an attack, and had one occurred the human costs would have been astronomical. Malians remember well that only a few months ago, insurgent forces ejected the army from northern Mali as if they were throwing a drunk from a bar. Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal fell in a weekend. The army collapsed, and it has only been weakened by internal fighting since. Any other story is a fairytale.
The enemy is formidable. French officials expressed some surprise at the level of sophistication of the Islamist forces – well-armed, well-trained and experienced. In an early wave of the French intervention, one helicopter took heavy fire from small arms, and a pilot was killed; another French soldier remains missing. Malian casualties were heavy, and likely remain under-reported. Sources from Mopti refer to dozens of deaths among the Malian ranks, and there will be other casualties to come. In short, last week’s Islamist offensive put paid to the argument that the Malian army itself was capable of defending the country from further attack and of liberating the territory over which it had lost control.
This is not a neo-colonial offensive. The argument that it is might be comfortable and familiar, but it is bogus and ill-informed. France intervened following a direct request for help from Mali’s interim President, Dioncounda Traore. Most Malians celebrated the arrival of French troops, as Bruce Whitehouse and Fabien Offner have demonstrated. Every Malian I’ve talked to agrees with that sentiment. The high stakes and the strength of the enemy help to explain why the French intervention was so popular in a country that is proud of its independence and why the French tricolor is being waved in Bamako. That would have been unimaginable even six months ago – and probably even last week. More important than how quickly it went up will be how quickly it comes down; this popularity could be ephemeral. One tweeter says French President François Hollande is more popular than Barack Obama right now. I’d wait for Hollande’s face to go up on a few barbershops before making that call, but the comparison gives a sense of the relief many felt when French forces came to the rescue of the Malian army.