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Within the next few days, France will have deployed some 2,500 troops to Mali. That’s as large a commitment as France made to what became a profoundly unpopular war in Afghanistan. No one knows how long the troops will be there, but the price tag will surely be tens if not hundreds of millions of Euros, this to born by a French economy already in woeful shape.
The danger is that President Francois Hollande and the French state, may shortly find themselves in the disastrous situation of the hapless coyote in the cartoon, Roadrunner, so intent on chasing his prey that he scurries right over a cliff and suddenly finds himself flailing in mid air, about to plunge to the desert below.
President Hollande said the menace of a radical Islamic takeover was so imminent that he had no choice but to intervene—to save not just Mali, but all of Western Africa, and, the French now imply, Europe as well.
Strange thing though, despite the supposed urgency of the situation, France has had precious little luck so far in convincing its European partners to contribute their own troops to the intervention. Indeed, the last thing those countries want, after the traumatic experience of Iraq, Libya and the Afghan crusade, is to become enmeshed in what risks to be an open-ended conflict, on behalf of an unelected Malian government, against a vague assortment of ethnic rebels and jihadis in the desert wilds of North Africa. Thus, so far there have been a lot of pats on the back from France’s allies, offers of logistic support, intelligence, a few troop transports, drones, but that’s it.
“You say, ‘We’ll give you nurses and you go get yourselves killed,'” said French deputy Daniel Cohn-Bendit, railed at his fellow deputies in the European Parliament. “We [Europe] will only be credible if French soldiers are not the only ones getting killed.”
Actually, it was surprising to learn that France, still considered a major military power, doesn’t have the capability to transport a couple of thousand troops and their equipment to North Africa. France even had to rely on an offer from the Italians (!) for tankers to handle in-flight refueling of French fighter jets.
Despite the tepid response from France’s allies, French government spokesman are still reassuring the public that French troops are not going to play the major combat role in the coming ground battles.
The fact is, that even if they wanted to play a major role, there are nowhere near enough French boots on the ground. It’s instructive to speculate on France’s combat strength, using what is known as the “tooth to tail” ratio, that is, the number of support troops in the rear needed to support each combat soldier at the front. For the U.S. military that ratio is about three to one. If we use the same figure for France, that means that out of 2500 French troops deployed to Mali, probably about 600-700—a thousand at best–would actually see front-line combat.
And Mali, don’t forget, is twice the size of France, or Afghanistan or Texas.
The actual down-and-dirty fighting, we are told, is to be done by troops from West Africa, some of whom have finally begun arriving in Mali. But all the reports about those contingents indicate a woeful lack of equipment, morale, and training, particularly in being able to fight a guerrilla war in the desert reaches of the Sahel.
After months of discussion, this week—in the wake of the hostage crisis in Algeria– France’s European allies finally agreed to dispatch 250 troops to help train the Malian army and perhaps other African units. But—unless the fallout from the Algerian disaster changes things–it’s already determined that those European trainers are to be non- combatants. They will not even be advising the Malian soldiers in battle. As one senior EU official made very clear. “We will not go north. We will stay in the training areas,”
By the way, one thing I can never figure out—whether it be Mali or Afghanistan–we‘re always hearing about how the forces being backed by the U.S. and its allies, like France in this case, invariably seem to be poorly trained and equipped and demoralized, despite hundreds of millions of dollars and years of training. [Think Afghanistan where only one out of 23 battalions is able to function independently of U.S. support.]
Meanwhile, the ragtag rebels they’re combating, usually from those same third world countries, like the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Touaregs in Mali are portrayed as dedicated, fierce, battle-hardened warriors, who wreak havoc on their opponents with often the most primitive improvised weapons or suicide bombs. Reports are that it will take many weeks, probably months, before the various African troops will be ready to do any serious fighting. And there are other problems to deal with apart from training and equipment: the danger, for instance, of unleashing Christian soldiers from Nigeria to suppress Islamic rebels in Northern Mali.
Ironically, as I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, while France’s allies are hanging back, the Chinese, who have huge economic interests and construction projects underway in every one of Mali’s neighbors, continue to go about their business, apparently still content to leave the police work to France and Europe and the West African states.
The French, for the record, insist that the groups they are battling in Mali –and now in Algeria–are all lumped together as “terrorists”, linked to al-Qaeda. There is no recognition of the fact that most of the different rebel groups, most of them driven by strong ethnic and nationalist aspirations, as much as by religion–not that different perhaps, from the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In that case, it’s obvious that the only way this conflict will ultimately be settled is not by somehow eradicating the “terrorists” ,but by sitting down to negotiate a deal, as will probably be the case in Afghanistan.
In Mali, such a deal may be not be that different from the kind of settlement that was offered the Touaregs years ago after a series of rebellions, but which the Malian government ultimately reneged on.
So, how do the French feel about this?
Estimates are that anywhere from 400,000 to one million French took to the streets of Paris last weekend. A counter-protest, expected to draw hundreds of thousands of other militant French, is now being organized. Tempers are flaring.
What’s the issue?
Well, actually, no. It’s whether the French government should legalize gay marriage.
As for the intervention in Mali, at first the French, from all ends of the political spectrum, seemed to be solidly behind their government and their fighting men.
That consensus is already unraveling, and it’s certain that as the intervention drags on, the casualties and costs mount, and France’s European allies still drag their heels, the patriotic surge will flag
Which bring us back to the Roadrunner. At some point the French may suddenly look down to find to their president has taken them over a precipice, and they’re suspended there, gazing in horror at the chasm below.
Barry M. Lando, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with 60 Minutes. His latest book is “Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush.” Lando is currently completing a novel, “The Watchman’s File”, concerning Israel’s most closely guarded secret (it’s not the bomb.) He can be reached through his blog.