France's Perfect Intervention

Nick Thomson

Mali may not be Afghanistan, but France's intervention reveals the what type of conflict western militaries insist on fighting.

War is often divided into a simple binary. There are wars that are forced upon states out of the need of sheer survival in the face of an existential threat, a war of necessity, and those that aren’t: a war of choice. In a war of choice, states usually pursue their own interests but these always fall short of absolute survival. It’s been a commonly used dichotomy throughout the last decade, particularly in the rhetoric over the bitterly controversial intervention in Iraq.

This meaning of the war of choice can be explored further because states can also choose how to fight them. As we shall see, the French Intervention in Mali represents what could be called a ‘perfect’ war of choice. This, however, should not be seen as good news. The punditry that followed France’s intervention did not take long to begin comparing the conflict in Mali and the quagmire that is the on-going conflict in Afghanistan. Many commentators believed the intervening countries risk becoming bogged down in a a lengthy conflict. ‘Africanistan?’,the Economist’ asked, though such puns are more befitting the front page of other sources of news.

But Mali will not be France’s Afghanistan because the French have taken extensive measures that will pre-empt any sort of mission creep, and this is why their war of choice is so perfect. France has set strict parameters that limit how long their troops will be deployed that will define what type of conflict they will be engaged in.

The narrative of the conflict in Mali correlates to Mao’s theory of protracted war, only in reverse. By January the rebels had seized the initiative and were holding geographical areas in the North of the country. Yet when France intervened, the rebels chose to engage Malian and French forces in conventional methods in order to hold on to these towns and cities, which played to France’s advantage. The rebels, in a similar way to the Taliban in 2001, decided to play by the rules of conventional warfare against a vastly superior opponent who donned superior firepower, technology, air support, and is best trained for this type of fighting. The outcome of the battles in Timbuktu and Gao were hardly surprising.

If we follow the reverse timeline of Mao’s theory, the rebels – now no longer able to hold territory, are likely to be forced to adopt guerrilla tactics when the Malian government regains sovereignty of the North, marking the end of the ‘proper’ war and the beginning of a lengthy insurgency. Given that, at the time of writing, a French military spokesman stated there was a “residual presence” of rebels amongst the civilian population and that the first suicide bombing recently took place in Gao, it looks like this transition into irregular warfare is already in motion.

Coincidentally, and indeed conveniently, the beginnings of an insurgency marks the same time as when French combat operations will come to an end. The French government has repeatedly stated that French combat operations will come to an end once the government regains sovereignty over the previously Islamist-held areas and will begin to withdraw its troops by the end of March. As France’s Foreign Minister recently said, “Now it’s up to African countries to take over…the French aspect was never expected to be maintained. We will leave quickly.”

In other words, France has successfully pre-empted any possibility of fighting an insurgency even though the conflict will very likely turn into one. France’s war of choice is so perfect because it is a war that is strictly confined to the tactics western forces are best at:  kinetic, offensive operations against an identifiable opponent in set piece battles with the presence of air support. To French soldiers, this has been a completely regular conflict with a clear front lines and supply lines. As such, France may be able to build up a narrative of success, declare their offensive operations over and leave the difficult task of consolidating control of Northern Mali against an opponent utilising guerrilla tactics to the Malian and the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA). As such, France will end its combat role when the war is far from over.

France has not only chosen to fight in Mali, but it has also chosen how to fight it.

But this ‘perfect war of choice’ certainly shouldn’t be celebrated. Rather, it reveals the continuing reluctance of Western militaries to engage in irregular warfare and counterinsurgency against opponents who simply don’t play by the rules. France has decided to actively deploy troop in combat roles only for the time period when the conflict reflects one that its conventional military forces, indeed most western militaries, want to fight.

France isn’t alone in its aversion to irregular warfare. The US military self-regulated its deployment through the Powell Doctrine and its predecessor thought up by Caspar Weinberger, which was conjured up partly to prevent the US military becoming bogged down in another Vietnam. Despite the renaissance of Counterinsurgency doctrine over the last decade, there are significant limitations to how much the basic principles of COIN are adopted or trickles down through the ranks. Indeed, for the British Army, the majority of training is still designed for conventional war-fighting. Western militaries still train for a war they want to fight, not necessarily one what they may have to fight.   The so-called ‘real war’ taking place in set-piece battles in Timbuktu and Gao reveals how militaries can bypass what they would see as the persistent nuisance of irregular warfare, where their opponents don’t play by the rules. But it also reveals how militaries refuse to acknowledge the perpetual possibility of asymmetrical conflict.

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