In 2003, the Bush administration justified the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had ties with Al-Qaeda and possessed weapons of mass destruction. Bush named the invasion ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, claiming that he wanted democracy for Iraq.
The French administration at the time rejected Bush’s justifications for the invasion- and with good reason. Bush’s absurd claims about Saddam were incorrect, and Operation Iraqi Freedom has brought instability and violence rather than democracy. In a mocking response to French objections, Republican senators renamed French fries ‘freedom fries’ on menus in House of Representatives cafeterias.
So why are the French now attacking Mali? Is the French government finally embracing freedom fries?
French military intervention in Mali came as a surprise to neighbouring countries, particularly as armed Islamist groups were open to negotiations in the interests of a peaceful solution to the conflict. Iyad Ag Ghaly, head of Ansar Dine, brokered many deals for the release of Western hostages in the Sahara.
Islamist factions took control of Mali after a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali supported by well-equipped Tuareg allies of Qadafi from Libya. In response to this rebellion, Islamist groups marginalised the Nationalist Movement for Liberating Azawad (northern Mali) and taking control of northern Mali. Invited to intervene by the Malian government, the French government has claimed that human rights abuses by armed Islamist groups in Mali provoked their intervention.
Mali, once a well-regarded Muslim empire, fought against French colonialism under the banner of Islam. Algeria and Morocco fought against French colonialism in the same way. Raising the banner of Jihad is not foreign to the Sahel.
The idea that France’s intervention is due to human rights abuses is misleading. There are plenty of conflicts in the world featuring mass murder and flagrant abuses of human rights with which France is not concerned. French ties with the colonial past have not been completely severed and France retains many interests in West Africa, a region rich in oil, gas, and uranium.
Fighting terrorism or human right abuses is a convenient pretext to create legitimacy for invasion. Al Qaeda does not control northern Mali and was not a major party in the conflict, as British anthropologist Dr Jeremy Keenan stated in “Al Qaeda in the West for the West”.
The current nation-states of the Sahel are artificial post-colonial creations with borders that do not respect ethnic, social, and linguistic boundaries. Rebellions are mostly accompanied by economic and political demands, which are not met. Furthermore if they are met they are unlikely to maintain the same kind of relations with France which will enable exploitation of its resources with little restrictions.
The European Union faces difficult economic conditions and France is no exception. French intervention in Mali could be a cost-efficient way to retain the upper hand in any economic deals with the Malian government; military support does not come for free, and neo-imperial France is certainly not going to Mali for charity.
The “intervention” will not advance human rights; instead, it will create a platform for militants to recruit more volunteers, create further instability, and cause hundreds of deaths.
However, there could be nothing better for François Hollande than to start off his presidential term as a tough man who is serious about fighting terrorism. If French intervention in Mali protects the interests of French corporations in the Sahel, expect a second term for Mr Hollande.