France Goes to War

by Benjamin Studebaker

French President François Hollande has decided that France is going into Mali.  The nation of Mali has, in the last year, descended into civil war. The war in Mali has received relatively little mainstream media coverage and many westerners are, to our collective shame, unaware of what has been going on there and the role their own governments have played in creating the war. Today I would like to examine the Malian Civil War, its causes, the present state of affairs, and the ethics of intervening in it.

The Malian Civil War is an off-shoot of the Libyan Civil War and the west’s intervention in it. When the western nations entered the Libyan conflict, they flooded the rebels with weapons and military support. When the war in Libya was concluded, the new government was insufficiently strong to control the spread of these weapons, and the west, for its part, considered its work done and left. The result was the arming of the Tuareg rebels in northern Mali, a separatist faction that has sought independence from Mali since the sixties. The Tuareg rebels believe that a region of Mali roughly the size of Texas to be an independent country, which they call “Azawad”. The Tuaregs want independence because they feel their region is unduly impoverished (it is) and because they resist the Malian governments efforts to modernise and develop the region. If this sounds counter-productive, it is because it is. The Tuareg rebels will not embrace the progressive change necessary to enrich their region, but they nonetheless demand prosperity. Mali, which possesses a per capita GDP of less than $700, does not have the funds to redistribute wealth to Azawad. It must instead develop the region, and it cannot do this if the region resists efforts to develop it.

The rebels were led by two factions. The first group is the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad). The second faction is a coalition of Islamist organisations, including Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram (also known as “Western Education is Sacrilege”), and Ansar al-Sharia. What we have here is a combination of nationalists and reactionaries, more or less.

The Malian government mishandled this war and lost the Azawad region to the rebels. The Malian military, frustrated by what they considered to be incompetence on the part of the civilian government, overthrew the elected Malian government in a coup d’etat in response.

After seizing Azawad, the Islamist rebels began imposing a very medieval version of Sharia on the populace. This resulted in a break between the Islamists and the MNLA, and so the conflict is now three-fold, with a military junta against nationalists against religious extremists.

At present, the region of Azawad is under the control of a mixture of the nationalists and the Islamists. Here is the current state of affairs, as best known to us at present:

It should be noted that the Islamists have been destroying historic sites from the Mali imperial period. It is believed by some of the rebel groups (in particular, Ansar al-Sharia) that this destruction is ordained by Allah. They are also reportedly using child soldiers and engaging in rape, vandalism, and other behaviours that have been labelled war crimes.

In most cases my tendency has been to be opposed to western interventions in foreign conflicts. I was against intervention in Iraq and Libya, I remain opposed to intervention in Syria. However, this particular case is different for several reasons:

  1. This conflict did not occur organically; the arms being used by the rebels are only in the region because of previous western action in Libya. To intervene in Mali to stop their use minimises the ill effects of a previous western intervention. The west messed up the region badly during the Libyan intervention, and sometimes the only way to correct a deviation from good policy (i.e. general non-intervention) is with a further deviation.
  2. The rebels are not a progressive force. They are nationalist separatists seeking to break up a country and undermine its progress. They are Islamist extremists seeking to arrest Mali’s advancement and roll it back to a medieval state of affairs. Gaddafi and Assad are brutal individuals, but their nations did experience economic development and progress under their respective reigns, and they were secular. It remains conceivable that the governments that replaced Gaddafi and and may yet replace Assad could be worse than the regimes they removed. It is wholly impossible for the Malian rebels to outperform the present Malian state. These rebels are destroying Mali’s tourism industry, its economic infrastructure, and its rule of law. They are making a very poor country even poorer. I have no use for separatists, nationalists, religious extremists, and other reactionaries, and neither do the world’s poor, or, in this specific case, Mali’s poor.
  3. The African Union, which represents a pan-African interest, supports the French intervention. If the AU are happy enough with the Malian junta, it stands to reason that they are the legitimate government in Mali and have not earned overthrowing.
  4. The French have an economic interest in the outcome that they have the right to defend–France is Mali’s second leading importer, responsible for around 14% of Mali’s imports. It represents a major market for French goods. It is always morally permissible for states to defend their true interests, provided those interests are perceived correctly, as states are responsible first and foremost to their citizens. The French benefit from trade with Mali, and it is the French government’s prerogative to ensure those benefits continue in so far as doing so does not risk any larger French interests in the long-term. I see no such risks here.

The French motivation for entering into the conflict is western guilt–France is Mali’s former imperial master and feels responsible for Mali’s present poverty. While the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries have expressed support for the French endeavour, only France will directly use its military. Given France’s economic interest in Mali is not shared by these other countries, it is understandable that they would choose to refrain from participation.

One could praise France’s moral courage in choosing to intervene alone, but it simply is in the French interest to intervene in a way that it is not for other western nations. France is not more moral or in any way better than these nations; it merely is making a good decision for France based on France’s national interest. It so happens that this coincides with the interest of Mali and the Malian people, and so much the better for all that.  All the same, I commend François Hollande and the French state for doing the right thing both for France and for Africa by acting to stop this uncivilised, reactionary movement from destroying Mali.

I find myself somewhat surprised–this is the second day in a row that I have seen fit to actually commend a country for taking an action I support. Generally, I find myself bemoaning the bad decisions of our states, but today I am proud to be human and glad to see good action taken. Vive la France.


France and the Malian government have since been victorious in the Mali conflict. The map shows the state of affairs in January, when this post was written.