Written by Hilary Barnes
Reluctantly to war
It is a fair assumption that the last thing that France's President Francoise Hollande would have wished for was to become involved in fighting a war in Africa, but the southward advance of Islamic jihadists in Mali, determined to gain control of the capital, Bamako, left him with little choice.
The immediate, stated aims of France's intervention are three - to stop the jihadist advance (in which success seems to have been achieved so far) ; to prevent the complete collapse of Mali's state institutions ; and to protect French and European nationals in Mali.
The broader purpose is to prevent the Islamist radicals from turning Mali into a theocratic state and a centre for exporting terrorist operations to its neighbours in West and North Africa and Europe, an African equivalent of Afghanistan.
The other aim is to reunite Mali with its break away northern provinces, which declared their independence as Azawad on April 6 last year, just two weeks after a putsch by junior Malian army officers had evicted the president, dissolved the government and suspended Mali's democratic constitution, plunging Mali into a state of disorder and collapse.
With Mali's army seemingly paralysed and incapable of mounting combat operations, let alone running the country, the chances of jihadiste success in the absence of armed assistance to Mali from outside may have been quite good.
Plans for intervention by about 3,000 troops from other West African nations, such as Senegal, Nigeria, Niger, Mauritania and others, have been in progress for the past nine months but this force (or these forces) are not yet ready.
With the advance of the jihadiste forces to takes towns on the route to Bamako, France felt that it was forced to act without further delay. It has the support of the Europeans and the USA, including logistical and intelligence support from the UK and the USA, but no one else is prepared to send ground troops, so for the moment France is pursuing this war alone.
Although the government's intervention exposes the lives of nine hostages held by the rebels in West Africa and possibly to terrorist attacks in metropolitan France, political and public opinion is almost solidly behind President Hollande's decision.
Interestingly, the one person to advance a coherent case against the intervention is Dominique de Villepin, who as foreign minister under President Jacques Chirac in 2003 led France's charge against the Iraq war with a flamboyant and memorable speech in the UN Security Council.
His basic position is that wars only lay down the conditions for the next war and should therefore be avoided in favour of political settlements.
Whether that is possible against an organisation such as AQUMI, Al-Quaeda's Mahgrebian offshoot and the prime mover in present offensive in Mali, is a good question.
Paris newspaper Le Monde cited an intelligence source as saying that for years Al-Quaeda's aim has been to create "an abscess of fixation" in the Sahel to draw in western forces for a major confrontation. If so,they would seem to have succeeded.
In Le Journal du Dimanche, another Paris newspaper, on January 13 de Villepin declared that
"none of the conditions for success are present [in Mali] . In the absence of war aims we are fighting blindfolded," he wrote. "To stop the jihadists moving south, to reconquer the north of the country, and to destroy the AQUMI bases are three different wars."
"We are fighting without the support of a stable Mali state. After the eviction of the president in March, the prime minister in December, the collapse of a divided army, and the general failure of the state, on whom are we relying for support ?"
He may have a point, but the answer seems to be that it is precisely the vacuum created by the collapse of the Mali political institutions that made the French intervention an urgent necessity if Al-Quaeda's ambitions in the region are to be checked.