Why France has gone into Mali (with a push from Washington)

One group of Mali rebels is said to be responsible for killing US Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:25 ON Wed 16 Jan 2013

AT FIRST glance, President Hollande's foray into Mali looks like the story of the boy sticking his finger in the mangle, only to find that his arm has gone within seconds.

Francois Hollande campaigned for the French presidency last year as the man of peace – and one of his first acts in office was to bring the bulk of France's troops out of Afghanistan. So why is he donning Napoleon's sash and tricorn hat and sending troops and planes to fight in Mali, and why now?

France is dispatching a contingent of at least 2,500 soldiers to Mali, while for five nights in a row French Rafaele and Mirage jets have pounded towns taken by anti-government rebel forces.

The rebels are made up of three Jihadi Islamist groups, linked to the al-Qaeda franchise, and Tuareg nationalist insurgents, who have taken over the northern half of the country for over a year now.

In the past few weeks the insurgents have moved on two lynchpin towns in central Mali, Diabaly and Konna, from which they were preparing last week for an advance on the capital Bamako, which is home to 6,000 French nationals.

The French, even if they didn't need it, have been encouraged by Washington to act.

The CIA had been taking a close interest in Mali since the upsurge in Tuareg nationalist military activity began early last year. They have run drones continuously over Tuareg-held territory, and former CIA boss David Petraeus was due to answer questions in Congress about the agency's campaign there when he resigned in November.

The Tuareg, a group of about 1.5 million non-Arab nomads, have been trying to carve their own independent realm, Azawad, virtually since Mali became independent from France in 1960.

In 2011, the Tuaregs were boosted by the return to Mali of their fellow tribesmen who had served as mercenaries for Col Gaddafi in Libya. These men then linked up with Jihadi Islamists who had begun to operate in Mali in 2006.

One group, Ansar Dine, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, leader of previous Tuareg rebellions, is a main focus of American attention – because they are thought to have been responsible for the attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, in Benghazi last September.

The insurgents were able to consolidate their hold across northern Mali last year because of the chaos in the south.

Mali government forces haven't done very well against the new insurgent alliance of the MNLA (Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), which is still in Diabaly and Konna and threatening the capital.

As well as the French forces, ECOWAS - the alliance of west African nations - is committing a further 3,500 troops. Across a country as big as Spain these numbers seem pathetically thin. Britain, Belgium and Denmark, are providing transport planes. The US is offering communications and intelligence equipment.

Once more we are hearing of the need to combat an international threat from global Islamist extremism. No one dares use the term ‘war against terror' any longer, but the West faces many of the same questions as in the campaigns launched by President George W Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq.

France is in danger of finding that it owns the Mali problem, so weak is the Mali government and its forces. A long and uncertain ground campaign awaits them.

French forces may well be boosted by the capable ground and helicopter desert forces of Algeria, a grindingly secular military regime as committed as any to fighting the Jihadis, but France has scant resources and it is hard to believe the deeply unpopular Hollande will get the French public on his side over this.

An awful warning about such a campaign was given by Professor Toby Dodge of the LSE, publishing his latest study on Iraq, From War to a New Authoritarianism, this week.

After overthrowing the aggressive military dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, at the cost of $200 billion in reconstruction, 4,500 US military lives and 135,000 Iraqi civilian lives, we have ended up with another authoritarian regime reinforced by a hugely powerful military. And he might have added, another round of civil war can't be ruled out. ·