Originally Published 2013-02-11 00:00:00 Published on Feb 11, 2013
After sending out confusing signal for months, France may have chosen the worst possible moment for intervention. Because its procrastinations allowed a whole range of potential opponents to mingle and be jointly prepared just in case the French did intervene.
France in Mali -Tragedy with much comic relief
The embarrassment France has faced in its Mali expedition cannot be allowed to cast a shadow on President Francois Hollande's two day visit to New Delhi beginning next week. Since he will be landing in India, with his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, exactly on St. Valentine's Day, they may like to have a few private moments at the Taj in Agra. But when he makes a pitch for the $12 billion Rafale jets being sold to India, rival defence dealers will alert A. K. Antony's team about the French air force image in Mali.

What happened in Mali?

Well as early as October 11, Hollande announces there would be "no men on the ground, no engagement by French troops" in Mali.

On January 8, Le Figaro publishes an opinion poll which clearly establishes Hollande's popularity plummet like it never has for any French leader.

On January 11, a panic stricken Presidency decides to fly out troops to Mali. What is the immediate provocation? The French did nothing when the splendid 15th century monuments in Timbaktu were being dismantled.

On this occasion the reason given is that the militants of Ansar Dine had taken Konna and would proceed towards the capital Bamako. But Bamako is 700 kms of open country from Konna. Is a full fledged invasion by France required to handle a mere hundred or so militants? What happened to a joint African Force?

Whatever, the logic for the intervention, it reflects on the mental health of the French nation that approval ratings for the President improve as soon as France is seen to be involved in action which conjures up images of colonial authority.

Having been rushed into action without any notice, the troops are confronted with an extraordinary situation: there is no pre positioning of assets for an overseas expedition. There is no logistical infrastructure. Indeed, the nation which is in the Defence market in India, had to lean on Britain to supply C-17s to airlift men and materials to Mali.

A very reluctant Britain loans two C-17s, one of which breaks down in France. Canada is implored for help. A Canadian C-17 also breaks down as soon as it participates in the ill starred expedition.

The next scene is custom made for a French Film maker: 400 troops in Mali are falling over each other for the first right to sleep on the hundred or so cots that are available. Men with guns on the ready are sent out to neighbouring towns to purchase 400 mattresses. And yes, in a mosquito ridden country, the troops are also short of mosquito nets.

Another problem is refueling. The Algerians have allowed their previous colonial masters to overfly their territory to reach Mali. But flying to Mali and back from France is a distance long enough for planes to require refueling. In this department too the French are wanting. So Danes are commandeered for refueling technology, but they want payment for fuel confirmed well in advance.

Elements in the US establishment have not forgotten strong French opposition to American unilateralism in Iraq. Americans spot great irony in French unilateralism. They delay their Drone surveillance.

French analysts like Olivier Zajec of Le Monde have a ready response to this line of thinking. France supported the rapid strike needed to topple the Taleban regime in Afghanistan soon after 9/11. But it was careful not to place too many French troops on the ground. Why? Because it has limited interest in a far-off region. By contrast, several thousand troops were deployed in Ivory Coast as part of a successful Peace Keeping Force.

Zajec proceeds to blame France for its "tragicomic" mixture of rhetoric and action in Libya, which, in the ultimate analysis, opened the gates to all and sundry - criminals, nomadic Tuareg tribes and Al Qaeda affiliates to destabilize all of North Africa.

After sending out confusing signal for months, France may well have chosen the worst possible moment for intervention. Because its procrastinations allowed a whole range of potential opponents to mingle and be jointly prepared just in case the French did intervene. Knowing the terrain well, the Militants-Tuareg combine has simply slunk away, leaving troops in a blind hunt for targets.

The West African summit in Abidjan on January 19 has announced an International Support Mission for Mali. West African countries have promised 3,600 troops. The despairing French troops on the ground will be training their binoculars on the horizon, waiting for these reinforcements to arrive before they are bogged down in slush which is unavoidable once the rains arrive in the coming month or two. That is when the enemy will strike.

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