Is the French military intervention into the conflict in Mali a sign of things to come?
The people of Mali are bearing the brunt of an Islamist insurgency there, which for the last year has seriously destabilized the country. A great deal of Mali's historic and religious landmarks, such as the shrines in Timbuktu, have been destroyed by Islamist rebels who perceive them to be blasphemous figures. Such monuments and sites of ancient historical significance are listed as United Nations World Heritage sites.
Upon request from the Malian government in Bamako, France is now undertaking a military intervention in the conflict. They are to be assisting the Malian state army in their fight against the Islamist forces and in reclaiming the large swaths of northern territory which the Islamists have captured.
Reports indicate France is aiding the government, as of January 11, by launching air strikes against rebel positions. The Economic Community of West African States is following France's lead by ordering troop deployments to Mali “in light of the urgency of the situation.” The U.N. Security Council has also stated that a previously planned UN force would also be deployed to Mali sooner than expected.
The European Union is additionally preparing to send in military advisers. Hundreds of French troops are already involved in this operation, with many of them providing security for the capital Bamako. Precision air strikes by French Air Force Dassault Rafale jet fighters has brought any Islamist advance on the Malian capital to the halt. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says France is taking this action against the Islamist's attempts to advance south in order to prevent them from creating “a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe.”
Despite these most recent efforts, Islamist gained control of another town, Diabaly, nearly 400 km from the Bamako on Monday.
The Islamist groups in Mali have entrenched themselves in the northern half of the country. Among them are many al-Qaeda fighters who desire to implement strict Sharia law on the nation. This wing of Al-Qaeda, called Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has essentially hijacked a campaign of insurgency that is fighting for the secession of a region in northern Mali. Azawad, the northern territory, houses an organization calling itself the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which is seeking to transform that part of the country into an independent ethnic homeland for the Tuareg people.
Mali has lost control of this massive area, which constitutes roughly two-thirds of the country's landmass. The MNLA is also engaged in battles with the al-Qaeda forces hoping to capitalize on the national turmoil.
France has also intervened militarily in Africa before, unilaterally, most notably in retaliatory air strikes against the Ivory Coast in 2004 following that country's attack on its peacekeepers stationed there.
Americans are lukewarm when it comes to committing forces on the ground of a war zone following the long and arduous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The last time American forces were deployed in the middle of a civil war without a proper mission plan was in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983. In that case over 241 American servicemen were killed when there barracks was bombed by Islamist forces there (as was the French barracks which killed some 58 French servicemen).
This led to France and the U.S pulling out of Lebanon and the civil war persisting up until 1990 -- when Syria gained control of nearly all the country's affairs. U.S forces in Africa were deployed to Somalia in 1992 to combat warlords who were purposely stealing humanitarian aid to empower and enrich themselves. During a U.S attempt to assassinate the infamous warlord Farrah Aidid U.S Army Rangers became bogged down in Mogadishu in the 'black hawk down' incident in October 1993. In this current operation in Mali we've already seen a French helicopter pilot, Lieutenant Boiteux, of the 4th helicopter regiment special forces being fatally wounded by enemy fire whilst engaging those aforementioned Islamist militants.
American C-130 planes have been in the skies over Mali dropping supplies to besieged and embattled Malian soldiers and will likely aid in the U.N efforts there in the future. However, for the moment France is the one taking the primary initiative and helping the Malian government liberate the country on a whole.