LONDON — When French troops moved into Mali last month, they deployed alone, without NATO or African allies, even though they were fighting a militant group linked to al-Qaida.
French President Francois Hollande received a hero’s welcome in Mali last week. Malians lined up to thank him for sending troops to end a growing insurgency by Islamist militants.
Even though the operation is part of the global effort to fight terrorist groups, the French troops worked alone and received only transport, intelligence and logistics support from allies.
Retired British Brigadier General Ben Barry, now at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, says that's partly because France didn’t need combat help.
“Politically, there’s no hint that the French want to slap either a NATO or a European Union badge on their current intervention," he said.
France also went ahead in spite of the “conflict fatigue” many European countries are experiencing after years of deployment in Afghanistan.
“What’s actually causing this is national interest in a way that’s more compelling than Afghanistan was," said Kathleen McInnis, a London-based adjunct fellow of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The French brought lots of high-tech equipment to Mali, but McInnis says the operation revealed shortcomings. Up to a point, it’s part of a strategy of shared European capabilities, but she says Europe still does not have enough even for a modest operation like this one.
"The number of requirements are going gone up. The capabilities have gone down. And these are capabilities that the Europeans have been told that they need to invest in for some time," said McInnis.
Indeed, the French needed transport planes and other help from the United States and Canada. And McInnis says the pattern could be repeated if militants rise in other parts of North or West Africa.
“Because Africa is very much in France’s interest to remain engage in, and it’s Europe’s backyard, I see France leading the way again and again," she said.”
The French military is already planning for its exit from Mali, as the Malian army takes on some responsibility and West African troops deploy to help. But Ben Barry says the commitment to Mali cannot end when the French military operation does.
“It’s security. It’s development. It’s politics. It’s intelligence. And it’s got to be done for the long term," he said.
It’s a story heard many times before in conflict zones all over the world. And while aid is flowing again in Mali, the country needs the kind of long-term assistance the international community has not always been good at delivering.