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Mission accomplished in Mali?

French forces are now in control of all the towns of northern Mali. But the Americans had an easy time of it in Iraq at first; the hard part comes later.

Well, that was quick. Reports this morning are that just three weeks after the beginning of France’s armed intervention in Mali, Kidal, in the far north-east of the country, has been secured. It had been the last town in rebel hands, although French special forces are said to have had control of its airport for several days. (As usual, reports from the war zone are confusing and possibly unreliable.)

Interestingly, Kidal was occupied not by Malian forces but by a contingent from neighboring Chad. It was felt (presumably by the French – it’s their show) that the locals would be more comfortable with them than with the Malian army. Kidal is in the desert heartland of the Tuaregs, the nomadic people who started the rebellion to win autonomy for their region before being quickly sidelined by Islamic extremists.

The extremists, affiliated with al-Qaeda, weren’t much interested in just an autonomous state in the north: they wanted the whole country. And they looked to be well on the way to getting it before the French stepped in.

Now that, as George Bush might have put it, “major combat operations in Mali have ended”, attention turns more to the political task ahead. As a “senior EU official” was quoted, “When a state falls apart, it takes a while to put it back together again. Nevertheless, we need to try.”

Representatives of the international community have been meeting in Brussels to work on the problem. Among the most important issues is the organisation of elections, scheduled for 31 July, to replace the interim Malian government that resulted from last year’s coup.

The French military triumph was hardly surprising. For a modern well-equipped army with complete control of the airspace, driving militia forces out of towns and settled areas is pretty straightforward. The trouble usually comes later, when control has to be maintained against local resistance – as the Americans soon discovered in Iraq.

Nonetheless, the parallels with Iraq (or even Afghanistan), while tempting, should not be taken too far. Mali’s central government has remained functional, if ramshackle; there’s no question of razing existing institutions and starting again from scratch. Local support for the French also looks much more genuine than the scenes that greeted the Americans in Baghdad.

And the French, again in contrast to the Americans, seem keen to be out of Mali as soon as possible. Foreign minister Laurent Fabius said today that France “has no business with a prolonged stay in Mali,” and that “It is the Africans and the Malians themselves who have to guarantee the country’s security, territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

None of that necessarily means things may not still end badly. But whatever one thinks of it in moral terms, France’s involvement with its former African colonies over the last 30 years or so has generally been efficient. Interventions have been short and militarily successful, and while they might not have done much to solve underlying problems, they have at least refrained from conspicuously making matters worse.

Military victory is not an end in itself. The objective is a safe and democratic Mali and reconciliation with the north. But this week that objective seems to have drawn a bit closer.

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