On Jan. 11, French military forces entered Mali, taking and inflicting casualties in a war as sudden as it is important.
Even at this early stage, broadly applicable lessons can be drawn from the conflict. Although the future course of the fighting is laden with risks, skillful diplomacy can turn it into a major opportunity in the struggle against international terrorism.
The French intervention was prompted by the combined offensive towards Bamako, the capital of Mali, of the three jihadi organizations which seized control of the northern half of the country last year. This unforeseen attack prompted the president of Mali to ask France for immediate help.
One lesson, as old as the history of war, but as often forgotten, is that one should not expect one’s enemy to cooperate. The general assumption had been that the jihadis would not move until a Western-trained African force was ready to free northern Mali next fall.
Given the situation on the ground, only an instantaneous counterstrike could have prevented the jihadis from seizing the capital within days. Were Bamako to fall, Mali could form the basis of what some call “Sahelistan” — a safe haven for terrorist fighters akin to pre-9/11 Afghanistan, with a similar threat potential to both the region and to the West, notably Europe.
Although French forces garrisoned in West Africa did not possess the latest in combat aircraft, speed was deemed to be of the essence. High stakes entailed high risks. It was only later that state-of-the-art Rafale jets and Tiger helicopters started being sent to the theater of operations.
The French have blocked and smashed one of the jihadi columns, while the other arm of the jihadi pincer attack is being dealt with at the time of this writing.
Another consideration was the crucial importance of effective in-place forces and the political decision-making enabling their prompt release. France is one of only a handful of countries which has that speed of reaction.
This in turn confirms another lesson, drawn by Donald Rumsfeld (admittedly Europe’s least favorite American politician) after 9/11: it is the mission that makes the coalition.
The cast of France’s military supporters ranges from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to the United States, and many in between. But NATO as such is absent — as is, for the time being, the European Union. The E.U. in particular has proven yet again that the words “speed and urgency” don’t figure in its lexicon.
Finally, the capability gaps that became evident in the war in Libya continue to bedevil the French — in-flight refueling and strategic reconnaissance (notably in terms of drones) are a big problem and U.S. help in these areas is always appreciated.
For the time being, the war poses few political problems. Domestic support in France is broad, and the French president is enjoying what I’ve called “springtime in Hollande.”
Behind a world-weary façade, the French support their soldiers, revile terrorism and accept casualties if the mission is seen as just and achievable. The United Nations Security Council and the African Union have been supportive, as have all of France’s allies.
But such popularity has a due date. If operations drag on and casualties pile up to no obvious advantage, the mood will sour. In the case of Mali, several conditions have to be met simultaneously to avoid an Afghanistan-style outcome.
First, the number of French soldiers must not increase beyond the 2,500 now being deployed in Mali, and their prime function should be to fight the jihadis, not to occupy territory.
Holding territory should be the responsibility of Mali and Ecowas troops from neighboring countries, supported by training and assistance from the West.
Second, the momentum of the current fighting should be sustained. Far from their logistical bases, the jihadi columns (with some 150 vehicles each) are being savaged. As Al Qaeda’s affiliates and their jihadi allies try to head back to the Sahara, they should not be allowed to recover.
In other words, the remaining weeks of the dry season should involve risk-taking by ground forces and air operations in order to break the enemy in the north.
That will entail some serious diplomatic footwork to ensure that this is seen as Africa’s war, supported by France and others, rather than a remake of Afghanistan.
Just as importantly, Algeria’s cooperation must be secured. By accepting the overflight of its territory by French combat aircraft and closing its border with Mali, Algiers has displayed a new spirit in the international fight against cross-border terrorism.
If confirmed, this shift could be critical, as the retreating jihadis get caught between the hammer of French and African intervention and the anvil of Algeria’s combat helicopters and desert fighters. However, such a stance will come with a price for French diplomacy, with its policy of choosing Morocco in its perennial standoff with Algeria.
President François Hollande, as commander-in-chief, has proven that he can act decisively. Now comes a severe test of political and diplomatic skill.
François Heisbourg is special adviser at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, a Paris-based think-tank.