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MURAT YETKİN > Why is France in Mali?

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French troops engaged in clashes with Islamist militants in Mali on Jan. 16 with backing from their European allies. Britain, Belgium and Germany are providing logistic support to France on the mission.

And so French troops are back in Mali after the West African country gained independence from it on June 20, 1960, ending a colonialist rule that had started in 1905. There were agency reports yesterday saying that some residents of the nation’s capital, Bamako, had started hanging French flags from their windows. That could be the beginning of a tragic end for Africa’s political independence experience.

French President François Hollande, a socialist, has vowed to “crush” the terrorists there so that they could “do no harm in the future.” The terrorists that Hollande mentioned are radical Islamist groups, some of which have links with the notorious al-Qaeda. French and actually most Western European countries who have colonial pasts in Africa are defending their move by saying that if militant Islamists were allowed to settle in Mali, the uncontrollable northern part of it being at the heart of Saharan Africa, then the Southern neighborhood of West Europe could turn into another Afghanistan, a base for “terrorism sans frontiers,” or “terrorism without borders.” Somalia in the “Sahel,” the East African coast and Mali in the “Maghreb,” north-west Africa, are two sources of concern for Western Europe and North America, namely the United States and Canada, regarding the radical Islamist rise.

While French military headquarters are disclosing plans to increase the number of ground troops from 800 to 2,500, a regional force of 3,000 from seven neighboring countries have been sent under the command of Mali’s government.

Islamist groups, the biggest of them being the Defenders of Faith (Ansar ad-Din) and Unity and Jihad in West Africa (At Tewhid wal Jihad), who have been practically in control of the northern parts of the country (a territory bigger than France and mostly Sahara desert) since 2012, reinforced with those armed groups and even the merceneraies who fled Libya after the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi regime in 2011. A strategically located town, Konna, was recently seized by them. With French air raids and now a ground offensive, there are reports that some of the militants are withdrawing further north, into the Saharan ocean of sand. But is that a victory? Or is it déja vu from Afghanistan and Iraq? The NATO operation in Afghanistan was aimed at crushing similar terrorists so that they could do no harm in the future. Now we are in the future. It is true that Osama bin Ladin, the leader of al-Qaeda, was killed in a U.S. commanded operation in 2011, but the organization has extended its reach from the Afghan mountains to its shores and the deserts of Africa, and is therefore now threatening Europe.

France will raise the issue with the European Union’s allies probably this weekend. Will Paris bring it to NATO as well? What will NATO (including Turkey with its new Africa opening) say than? Those are questions that have no answers yet. But the Pandora’s box has now been opened and the northern and southern shores of the western Mediterranean Sea might get warmed up dangerously in near future.

January/17/2013

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