By Clare Richardson
The French intervention in Mali this week raises the specter of another first-world nation’s rather recent mission to weed out Islamic militants. As France’s jets pummel the desert and its troops face ground battles against al Qaeda-linked rebels, a troubling analogy has presented itself in media reports and analyses: Will Mali become France’s Afghanistan?
France’s mission in Mali is to prevent the Sahel region from becoming a terrorist planning and training ground, particularly for al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM. The BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera explains the situation in terms of the conditions in Afghanistan before the U.S. intervention in 2001.
“No-one in Paris – or any other Western capital – wants parts of Mali to become like Afghanistan in the 1990s – a place where acts of terror further afield could be planned and where people would then ask why something was not done earlier.”
Indeed, concerns that Mali will become an ungoverned militant safe haven and training ground mirror the rhetoric used to rally support for the war in Afghanistan. The Associated Press made the comparison back in October.
“Many in the West fear that northeast Mali and the arid Sahel region could become the new Afghanistan, a no-man’s-land where extremists can train, impose hardline Islamic law and plot terror attacks abroad.”
Yet similar intentions in Afghanistan have flung the U.S. into arguably its longest war, and costover 3,200 lives of coalition forces and an untold number of Afghan civilians (some estimates put the number at roughly 20,000).
The fighting in Mali already has proven “harder than expected,” according to an AP report, despite a flat terrain that provides few places for extremists to hide (U.S. News reporter Paul D. Shinkmanhas pointed out the difficulty of finding combatants in Afghanistan’s “isolated porous mountain border with Pakistan” and “densely populated areas.”) Al Qaeda’s control, too, may be greater in Mali than Afghanistan.
“Al-Qaida never owned Afghanistan,” former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler told the AP. “They do own northern Mali.”
There are certainly key differences between the two countries. In an article for the Globe and Mailexploring whether Mali will look like Afghanistan, interim director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa Dave Petrasek offers a caveat on how the two interventions will differ:
“The Taliban have political aspirations within a defined territory, whereas AQIM’s aims are far less containable. And in response to a reporter’s questions about parallels with Afghanistan, French ministers have insisted that the commitment to Mali is not open-ended and will last only a few weeks.”
The AP also cites differences between the populations as a factor that could influence the outcome.
“Another factor in the success of military intervention will be the reaction of the people, who, unlike in Afghanistan, have little history of extremism. Malians have long practiced a moderate form of Islam, where women do not wear burqas and few practice the strict form of the religion. The Islamists are imposing a far more severe form of Islam on the towns of the north, carrying out amputations in public squares, flogging women for not covering up and destroying world heritage sites.”
Now, with hundreds of French troops advancing from the Malian capital Bamako toward Islamist insurgents, France risks embroiling itself in a protracted conflict in a faraway country.
“Africa’s latest war is likely to entail a long stay for France with an exit strategy that will depend largely on allies who have yet to prove they are ready for the fight.”
Ultimately, Afghanistan should serve as a reminder that the true legacy of France’s involvement in Mali will depend on how they leave the country.
Clare Richardson is the World editor at Reuters.com. She previously served as World editor and as an associate blog editor at The Huffington Post. She is a graduate of NYU.