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Why Mali is a European problem

The EU cannot delay offering genuine assistance in a conflict in which so much is at stake

Europe cannot allow a jihadist state to emerge in Mali, given that it would be practically on its doorstep. That is also the case for Mali’s neighbors, starting with Algeria, which has a great deal to lose. On Wednesday, the Maghrebi branch of Al Qaeda attacked a gas plant in Algerian territory and kidnapped an as yet unknown number of foreigners, after killing a British and French citizen. A rescue effort was apparently still underway on Thursday evening, with conflicting reports of casualty numbers.

France has acted rapidly to the immediate threat of the radical Islamic groups that have taken over the north of Mali occupying the capital Bamako, and the whole of the country. Its intervention has been sanctioned by the request for assistance by the Malian government — although Dioncounda Traoré heads a post-coup regime — and later backed by the Security Council of the United Nations.

The success of the operation is far from guaranteed, given that we are talking about a territorial area that is double the size of Spain’s. Besides, this is the seventh Western intervention in four years in the Muslim world without any of them being brought to a conclusion. Even the Libyan initiative was incomplete, given that the jihadists and Tuaregs that fought on the side of Gaddafi were able to return to Mali and destabilize it. It is to be hoped that this time around France and the international community will do a thorough job.

To act once again under the banner of the “war against terror” generates unhelpful ideological confusion. Before the jihadists got involved, what was happening in the north of Mali was a rebellion by Tuareg nationalists that was later supplanted by the militants that came from Libya under the badge of Al Qaeda and Islamic radicalism.

Europe drags its feet

For the moment France is acting on its own. It is true that as a former colonial power it has gone to defend its own interests in a country where 6,000 of its citizens live. But it is also doing so in the interests of the whole of Europe, although Europeans are shamefully dragging their heels. A year ago, the government of Mali asked them to intervene and they have spent months preparing a mission to back a force from the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS). It is only now that this plan has been speeded up, given the need for an African solution to the problem. But neither the capital of Europe nor Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, have been up to the task in a situation in which the United States will offer only intelligence, and if need be logistical, support, while NATO waits on the sidelines. Europe’s foreign ministers were due to hold an urgent meeting on Thursday in Brussels on rectifying this stance.

French President François Hollande has grown in political stature both within and outside France with his decisive reaction but the objective cannot be solely to “destroy the terrorists,” as he has stated he wants to do. It is not only Mali but the whole of the Sahel that has been transformed into an Islamic powder keg that must be deactivated. And to do so, arms are not enough.

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