The French military commenced Operation Serval against separatist rebels in Northern Mali on January 11, 2013. The air and ground intervention was undertaken with the cooperation and support of the United States, as well as several European and African states.
U.S. press reporting has provided a simplistic account of the intervention as a heroic effort to protect the civilized world against Islamic terrorist threats. What is missing from this image is how the past interventions of the “War on Terror” helped cause the Malian crisis in the first place.
A Washington Post editorial (1/12/13) claimed the French were simply trying to “rescue” Mali from “Islamist radicals.” The Islamist threat itself has been presented in sensationalized, often apocalyptic terms: One article in USA Today (1/22/13) was headlined “Al-Qaeda Spreads Web Across Africa,” while a second article (1/22/13) emphasized that Mali was “another front in the same struggle against violent extremism America has been waging since the September 11, 2001 attacks.”
The editors of the Wall Street Journal (1/16/13) warned that “an Islamist take-over” in Mali would “threaten more than Africa.” The Christian Science Monitor (1/15/13) worried that Islamists in Mali sought to dominate the whole region with “a caliphate across northern Africa.”
Such accounts exaggerate the Islamist threat. Rebels from the Tuareg ethnic group launched the uprising in January 2012 and formed opportunistic alliances with a series of Islamist extremist groups, most notably Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). However, AQIM’s rag-tag fighters comprise no more than “several hundred” members worldwide, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (1/24/13). And in Mali, the Islamists’ alliance with the Tuaregs began to break apart shortly after the rebellion began (Voice of America, 6/1/12).
France has a history of backing such unsavory dictatorships as Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko and the genocidal Rwandan regime. French intervention in Africa has long been intertwined with profiteering, political corruption, and criminality (Economist, 7/23/94). Recent U.S. press coverage has largely ignored this history, and insisted that the country was acting for principled rather than selfish motives.
On NPR’s Talk of the Nation (2/4/13), panelists emphasized the humanitarian nature of the Mali operation, as well as the Islamist threat. Rejecting the idea that Mali’s resources impacted France’s decision in any significant way, Rutgers’ Michael Curtis said the “fight against the Islamist threat” is “the crucial fact” of this intervention.
A Newsweek column (1/18/13) by French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy endorsed the intervention in moralistic terms, arguing that the intervention “restates the prominent role of France in the front lines of the struggle for democracy.” He neglected to mention, however, that the French were supporting a Malian military that had recently overthrown an elected government (BBC, 3/22/12).
The intervention certainly helped to improve public images of the armed forces, not only in France but in the United States as well. At U.S. News (1/24/13), military analyst Michael Noonan praised the Mali operation in part because it advertised the importance of worldwide military power and thus helped to justify U.S. military spending: The intervention, Noonan wrote, “should be a reminder that it will be penny wise but pound foolish to roll up the vast network of global basing infrastructure” that the U.S. maintains.
What was barely mentioned in these accounts was the history of past interventions by the U.S. and France, which had helped to create the Islamist threat in Mali in the first place.
Following the 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. began a program of military and security aid to Mali, totaling approximately $1 million during fiscal year 2007 alone (U.S. Department of State, 10/20/08). The destabilizing effects of this aid were noted by Africa specialist Nii Akuetteh during testimony before the House Subcommittee on Africa (6/29/12):
Conspicuous military assistance—from loudly trumpeted multimillion dollar grants to shiny vehicles and equipment to annual military exercises to overseas training for officers—dominated the close relations that the U.S. forged with Mali after 9/11. This was another policy move severely criticized by Africa policy analysts.
As a result of this aid program, U.S.-trained officers became increasingly arrogant toward civilian officials, and their aggressive actions undermined domestic stability, particularly antagonizing the Tuaregs in the north.
Then there’s Mali’s neighbor Libya. For Lévy, the latest intervention “confirms the responsibility to protect civilian populations that underpinned the earlier intervention in Libya.” But France’s 2011 intervention in Libya—with the U.S. and Great Britain—was one of the major causes of the Malian civil war. While often cited as a “success” (e.g., New York Times, 2/2/12), it proved a disaster for Mali. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had long employed expatriate Tuaregs among his security forces; during the disorganization following Gadhafi’s fall from power in October 2011, these mercenaries participated in the looting of Libya’s vast arms supplies and then re-entered Mali, where they helped to organize the January 2012 uprising (House Subcommittee on Africa, 6/29/12).
Mali’s descent into disorder was intensified in March 2012, when soldiers under the command of Captain Amadou Sanogo staged a coup, overthrowing the country’s elected government and ending more than 20 years of democratic rule. Sanogo had been extensively trained by the United States, with extended stays at four U.S. military bases. Evidence of initial U.S. support for the military takeover has come to light through Akuetteh’s congressional testimony.
Widespread international criticism of the coup later caused the State Department to reverse its previous position and to condemn the Malian military government. But the damage had already been done. The Tuareg fighters took advantage of the growing disorder within the central government to intensify their offensive, and they seized control over the whole northern region—setting the stage for French-led intervention under Operation Serval.
To be sure, one could find more critical perspectives on France’s intervention—but mostly in non-U.S. publications. From Nigeria, the Daily Trust (1/25/13) opposed the Mali operation, as well as “all Western imperialist interventions in other countries, as these had never yielded any positive results.” The Daily Trust recalled the earlier U.S. intervention in Iraq, which was undertaken “using the false claim of weapon[s] of mass destruction that were never found,” and which led to “close to half a million Iraqi death[s].”
An article in Al Arabiya (“Hollande in UAE Defends Mali Offensive, Hopes to Sell Warplanes,” 1/15/13) strongly implied that President François Hollande was using the intervention to showcase France’s Rafale fighter plane in order to generate export orders in the United Arab Emirates and possibly elsewhere.
Even in France, the press coverage has been far more clear-eyed than what has appeared in the U.S. media. Le Monde (2/4/13) noted that the French military was seeking to advertise its utility by undertaking a new foreign adventure, partly to impress domestic public opinion and avoid budget cuts.
Perhaps the harshest critique of the operation emanated from Seumas Milne of the London Guardian (1/22/13), who argued that “French intervention in Mali will fuel terrorism,” writing:
The past decade has demonstrated beyond doubt that such interventions don’t solve crises, let alone deal with the causes of terrorism, but deepen them and generate new conflicts.
While the current French intervention has proven popular with other governments in the region, the operation could easily turn into a disaster, as U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan did during the George W. Bush presidency. The recent terrorist attack against an internationally operated gas facility in Amenas, Algeria, was undertaken as revenge for the Malian intervention, and the attack underscores a broader danger: The intervention could very well increase the terrorist threat that it was supposed to contain—something U.S. media wouldn’t consider.
David N. Gibbs, professor of history at the University of Arizona, has published extensively on African politics and military intervention. His latest book is First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia.