Photo: Senior Airman Brandi Hansen, U.S. Air Force/Released/Flickr

Change the conversation, support today.

Do France’s objectives for Operation Serval, its military intervention in Mali, make sense? This question matters to everyone, not least to the countries from which France is seeking assistance. As the world learned in Afghanistan, to name just the most obvious recent example, if expectations are unrealistic foreign troops tend to remain long after any conceivable justification exists.

French President Francois Hollande seems to have learned no lessons at all from past experience. Mr. Hollande initiated the French military mission ostensibly to stop Islamist insurgents from moving south towards Mali’s capital, Bamako. It took almost no time for mission creep to take hold.

On Jan. 15, President Hollande announced that France will end its Mali mission only when stability has returned to the country. He pledged to drive Islamist extremists from the country and establish democracy.

On Jan. 18, the President pushed the envelope, declaring that “We have one goal. To ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.”

By Jan. 21, only the 11th day of the intervention, France’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian raised the ante once again. Mission creep accelerated to mission leap. The goal had now become the “total reconquest” of the conflict-plagued country. “We’re not going to leave any pockets [of resistance].”

The original undertaking was challenging enough. These escalations are infinitely more ambitious and imply a protracted commitment. Presumably it’s these goals that France is pressing countries in Europe, North America and Africa to support.

But the French objectives border on the delusional. Failure is guaranteed. As the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont writes in an article significantly titled “Terrorism is just one of many scourges to beset the people of Mali for decades,” the crisis in Mali is “the culmination of half a century of tensions among different groups in Mali.” Are the French or American or Canadian governments aware of any of this?

Geoffrey York, the Globe’s Africa correspondent, seems to have a better grip on the realities of Mali than these governments. Reporting this week, he reminds us of Mali’s “crumbling military and government structures…that had allowed the Islamist radicals to thrive for years.” Mali’s army, which overthrew the last president and dominates this one, is “ill-disciplined, corrupt, anarchic and poorly-equipped.” Talk of a stable Mali, in other words, is a pipe dream.

As for reports of several French victories over the Islamists, “the battle for the main towns was destined to be the easiest step in a vastly complex task,” as Mr. York writes. “The insurgents have spent months preparing a network of caves and tunnels in the desert and mountains. And they remain an elusive foe, ready to strike back when Mali is vulnerable again.” In a statement broadcast by Al Jazeera, the insurgents claim, entirely plausibly, that they had pulled out of some cities but would return at a time of their choosing. Retreat was strategic — and temporary.

Yet the U.S. too seems to be harbouring the same fantasies. On Jan. 22, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced that Washington fully backed the French mission. “With regards to the objective in Mali, as far as I’m concerned, the fundamental objective is to make sure that AQIM, al-Qaeda, never establishes a base for operations in Mali, or for that matter, anyplace else.” And indeed, the Obama administration is increasing its “logistical” help to the French military, including President Barack Obama’s favourite device, drones.

Similarly, in Canada, the government position, with swift Opposition approval, has crept from no assistance to one transport plane for a week to assist the French military to one transport plane for a month to Canadian special forces in Bamako. To what end? Because we believe that President Hollande’s goals are reasonable and that our assistance will facilitate them? If so, are we not obligated to agree to whatever France asks for as long as they ask? Isn’t that the logic of Canada’s position?

The world would surely be a healthier place without terrorists at large in northwest Africa. Yet this vast, largely unknown area has long been rife with rebel groups of all kinds — jihadists, secessionists, criminals. Is there any real chance that western military force can now eliminate them, or even come close? Or that the intervention of a modest number of modestly trained and modestly equipped soldiers from several African countries, whenever they eventually materialize, can do the job?

The west has been in perpetual war with Muslims of all kinds ever since 9/11, never quite winning. As the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald has reminded us, Mali is the eighth country in the last four years where western countries have killed Muslims. Shouldn’t the aim in Mali be to determine realistic goals before we kill again?

In the meantime, Canada should be a generous humanitarian donor to Mali’s refugees and displaced people. Over the years, in the name of R2P — the right to plunder — Canadian mining companies have made a fortune out of Mali’s resources. Significant humanitarian aid would be a good way to pay down some of our debt. Yet the government has pledged a mere $13-million, $5-million less than the cost of that one transport plane for France for a month. Like so much else related to the Mali crisis, it just makes no sense.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: Brandi Hansen, U.S. Air Force/Released/Flickr


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...