On January 11, France's President François Hollande sent in troops to Mali, a few immediately but then 3500, a sizeable number. The stated objective was to fight against the various Islamic fundamentalists who had taken control of northern Mali. It was what the French would call a gageure - a word that derives from gage in the sense of a bet. It basically means undertaking something very difficult to achieve. I think one might best translate it as a "risky bet" and in this case, I would say it was a very risky bet.
What did Hollande bet, and why did he do it? It is easy to see his reasoning as to why it was a good idea. He received a formal request from the President of Mali to send in troops immediately. The basic justification offered by both presidents was that the Malian army was in more or less full retreat and it seemed quite possible that, within a very short time, the Islamic fundamentalists might be able to take control of Mali's capital, Bamako, and govern the whole country. It seemed now or never.
Furthermore, Hollande felt he had considerable backing throughout the world to undertake this. The United Nations had passed a resolution unanimously, offering political support to the Malian government and authorizing the entry of African troops from neighboring countries to assist them. However, these troops were not considered "ready" yet and urgently needed some training. It had been anticipated that they would be ready in midyear 2013. Hollande felt France couldn't wait that long.
Furthermore, France got virtual support from Algeria, which had previously opposed military action even by African troops, but now authorized overflights. This support was seconded by Tunisia, which said it "understood" what France was doing. All of France's NATO allies - in particular, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Spain, and slightly less enthusiastically, the United States - said France was doing the right thing, and that they would give support: not sending troops, but offering some transport planes, and trainers for the various African armies.
Finally, there seemed to be other pluses for Hollande. The move strengthened the hand of the civilian president of Mali vis-à-vis the putschist leader of the Malian army, something France and all its allies wanted to do. And the move seemed to transform Hollande's image internally in France, changing it overnight from that of an indecisive, weak president to a bold wartime leader.
So then what was the risk in the bet? Hollande bet that he could send in a limited number of troops and planes, arrange that the north of Mali be reconquered by the Malian government with the aid perhaps of other African troops, and more or less permanently dislodge the Islamic fundamentalists. And he hoped to accomplish all this in a very short time - a month or so.
It is already clear after less than a month that he has probably lost the risky bet and that France is in another of those long-term quagmires in which the entire Western world seems to be specializing these days. Before France sent in the troops, there was lots of discussion about why France and the western world in general should not create "another Afghanistan," which many persons thought would happen if troops were sent in. And while every situation is a bit different, it is another Afghanistan that seems to be in the process of happening. Already French politicians opposed to Hollande, who had initially endorsed his decision unequivocally, are beginning to "take their distance." And none of the NATO allies seems too anxious to give truly substantial assistance, about which the French government is grumbling privately while publicly applauding the wonderful assistance they are getting.
As of this writing, French and Malian troops have already reconquered the three main urban centers of northern Mali (Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal). And there are even already some African troops (primarily from Chad) involved in the military effort. So, on the surface, it looks good. But just below the surface it doesn't look the least bit good for Hollande or the western world.
First of all, what does it mean to "retake" an urban center? It means that the various fundamentalist military groups (there are several different ones) have withdrawn their men and trucks from the towns, or at least from most of the town. The Islamic fundamentalists clearly intend to fight a guerilla war, not one of direct confrontation, for which they are too weak.
And withdraw to where? In part, it seems, they have withdrawn to being an underground force within the towns. And in part, probably in greater part, they have withdrawn to the desert sands (in which they are more proficient fighters) and ultimately to the cavernous mountainsides of northern Mali from where it will be very difficult to dislodge them.
But then at least, you say, life in the towns can "return to normal." Well, not quite. First of all, the towns, like most towns, are a complex medley of groups. There are Tuareg in the towns to be sure. And the struggle for Tuareg rights, for autonomy or independence, is what started the whole Malian imbroglio.
There are also local Saharan Arabs, and Peul - almost all Muslims. And a large number of the Muslims are Sufi, which means they don't appreciate at all the super-sharia version of Islam propagated by the fundamentalist groups. In addition, there are both light-skinned Malians (largely the Tuareg and the Saharan Arabs) and darker-skinned ones. And, in terms of the politics of the struggle, there were some locals who welcomed the Islamic fundamentalists, many more who opposed them (or fled), and still more who tried to keep out of the struggle.
One problem is that the Malian army, composed largely of dark-skinned (often non-Muslim) southerners, does not understand or care much about this complexity. They don't even like or trust the Chadians fighting with them, because they are largely Muslim. So, the Malian army takes its revenge a bit indiscriminately. And the human rights observers are already condemning them for engaging in the same kind of arbitrary slaughter that had been the complaint about the Islamic fundamentalists. And this of course is highly embarrassing for Hollande and the French in general. At this point, one reason the French give privately for staying in the battle is to serve as a restraint on the Malian army.
Where do we go from here? Anyone's guess. One can already see the same debate in France about withdrawal from Mali that one finds in the United States about withdrawal from Afghanistan. If we turn everything over to the local government whom we are supporting, will everything fall apart again? And are the ones we're supporting really "good guys"?
As has been shown time and time again, it is easy to send troops in. It is very difficult to get them out. And when one does, are things better or worse than they would have been, had troops never gone in initially? This counsel is what the Algerian government was proffering a month ago, until they too seemed to have changed their mind. Hollande's "courageous decision" may well turn out to be "Hollande's disastrous decision."