When the French foreign minister talks about Africa in the European Council, his counterparts from other European capitals listen very carefully. Because of their colonial past, France's diplomats are viewed as experts on Africa.
This was also the case on Monday two weeks ago, when the foreign ministers of European Union member states came together in Luxembourg to discuss the division of the West African country of Mali. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius used drastic language to warn of the "terrorist threat" developing in the northern part of the country. He made the case for an EU military mission to the country, saying: "Europe cannot simply stand on the sidelines."
Previously, French President François Hollande had used similar arguments to persuade German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But what politicians in Paris glossed over is that France has been fighting Islamic fundamentalists in the Sahel for years -- with its own elite soldiers, with instructors for the Malian army, with money and equipment and, most of all, without success.
Last Monday, Merkel had hardly given marching orders of sorts to high-ranking officers in Strausberg, near Berlin, telling them that "Mali's armed forces need support," when the political debate began in Berlin. Economic Cooperation and Development Minister Dirk Niebel, a member of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), the junior partner in Merkel's center-right coalition government, warned that the country could turn into a "second Afghanistan," and said that he believed "Germany's fundamental interests" are in jeopardy in the Sahel. Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was more reserved, but did make it clear to his generals that even a training mission could last "a few years." Military officials like Harald Kujat, the former general inspector of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, expressed concerns that there is a great "risk that this could turn into an armed conflict."
Skepticism also prevails in the German parliament, the Bundestag. "Let's not jump the gun," warns Florian Hahn, a defense expert with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's conservative Bavarian sister party. "We should tell ourselves what it is we want in Mali before running after Paris's interests," says FDP parliamentarian Elke Hoff.
In fact, the French have been the most enthusiastic about moving forward with a military mission. The Elysée Palace has believed for years that French interests in the Sahel zone are under threat. Faced with attacks, abductions of French citizens and shootings, Hollande's predecessor, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, already felt that the region was one of his most significant challenges on the foreign policy front. In July 2010, then Foreign Minister François Fillon announced: "We are at war with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb."
Now the rest of the Western world is also concerned about developments in divided Mali. Islamists have seized power in the northern part of the country, where they have established an archaic legal system that includes stoning, whipping and amputation, in addition to forcing hundreds of thousands to flee the region.
The transitional government in the capital Bamako appealed for help, as did the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Even the United Nations Security Council favors intervention.
France and the United States want the entire EU to participate. The German government is preparing to send several dozen soldiers as part of the mission, and Defense Minister de Maizière says that he cannot rule out the possibility that they will be involved in armed combat.
The plans are being treated with great discretion in Brussels. Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, describes the deployment options in a confidential, eight-page report. The situation in Mali, the report reads, constitutes a direct threat to the overall security of the European Union, as well as increasing the risk of terrorist attacks on European soil.
The military experts agree that European combat units will not intervene in Mali, at least not for the time being. The EU plans to provide the Malian government with instructors, money, military equipment and reconnaissance images. But is that enough? Can EU instructors sufficiently build up the ECOWAS troops and Malian soldiers so that they are capable of expelling the Islamists from the region?
Little Success in Recent Years
To stabilize the situation, French and US experts have been trying for years to improve the condition of the Malian army. But the effort has been relatively unsuccessful, as evidenced by the military coup that ousted President Amadou Touré last March. The north declared its independence soon afterwards.
The desolate state of the Malian army is revealed in reports from the US embassy in Bamako published by WikiLeaks. The commanding officers were interested in a lot of things, just not in rapidly improving the fighting capacity of their soldiers. There is a long list of failures and handicaps, including elite units that are poorly equipped and wear sandals, demoralized troops from the south who show little enthusiasm for being sent to slaughter in the north and a lack of ammunition for training purposes.
When US observers visited a military outpost in northern Mali, they described it as a picture of misery: "Living conditions on the base are ... harsh. Meals for the troops consists of sandy rice with bean sauce. Meat is extraordinarily hard to come by." The situation for deployed troops is "considerably worse," the observers' report continues. "Lacking shelter, the troops sleep under their vehicles, and often run short of drinking water."
Now these very soldiers are to be trained, partly by Bundeswehr instructors, and brought to a level at which they can prevail against the heavily armed desert combatants. Military officials and security experts in Brussels are working feverishly on preparations for the mission, which could consist of one of three likely variants:
- An advisory mission, known as EUSEC in the jargon of Brussels experts. Its goal would be to instruct Malian officers and noncommissioned officers at three military schools, including one in the city of Gao in the north, which is currently in the hands of the Islamists. This would require an estimated several dozen EU military trainers. Another aspect would include professionalizing the work of the general staff.
- A training mission (EUTM), which would require sending some 150 instructors to Mali for at least two years. Each of them would train a battalion (up to 800 soldiers) in one of four locations. The Europeans are also considering training an elite unit that could spearhead the fight in the north.
- A training mission with involvement in combat operations (EUTM+) that would accompany the Malian units into the war zone after their training is complete. The EU would deploy 400 to 500 of its own troops for this purpose. According to the EU, it would constitute "a military presence in the field, with direct involvement in the fighting."
The problem with this is that EU governments want to minimize the risk for their soldiers. But this modest deployment would have "little effect in the short term," warn experts with the European External Action Service.
Proposals over what to do about Mali raise significant doubts elsewhere too. "A military intervention comes with enormous dangers," says Philippe Hugon, research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "Even after a recapture of the north, the effects of a military campaign on the country would be unforeseeable."
The Tuareg, who are currently suffering greatly at the hands of the Islamists, also warn against foreign intervention. Their representatives told members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week that al-Qaida is no longer popular in the northern part of the country, but that an offensive supported by the West could revive the terrorist group.
The mission threatens to become a failure, particularly because time is running out. If the Malian army and the West African intervention force hope to invade the north before the hot summer, the Europeans will have to begin their training activities in the winter. And if they delay the mission, the Islamists will have plenty of time to strengthen their positions.