France's lonely intervention in Mali | Simon Tisdall

France has found few international friends to support its military action in Mali. Has it started something it can't finish?

The disclosure that one of two RAF cargo planes offered to France in support of its intervention in Mali has temporarily broken down aptly symbolises the disjointed, uncoordinated, and dangerously unfocused international response to the long-running crisis in the west African state. Having suddenly jumped in with both feet, France faces the daunting prospect of fighting a protracted, increasingly nasty counter-insurgency campaign without adequate or whole-hearted backing from its Nato and regional allies.

David Cameron's response was fairly typical of the wary reaction evident in European capitals to President François Hollande's decision to go to the aid of Mali's government. "What is being done in Mali is in our interests and should support France's actions," the prime minister told the BBC. Downing Street says it agrees the Islamist rebellion poses a "direct threat to international peace and security", as outlined in a UN security council statement last week.

But Cameron made clear there would be no British "boots on the ground" and that while London was prepared to provide limited logistical support, there was no question of joining France's air campaign, unlike in Libya two years ago. Nor does London apparently view this war as one in which the Nato alliance should become involved. Instead the expectation is that neighbouring countries, acting through the regional Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), will join and eventually take over the French campaign.

At least Britain is doing something. As is usually the case these days, Germany, Europe's self-avowedly most powerful state, is keeping its head down. Berlin prefers selling arms to using them, as a recent damning investigation of the "Merkel Doctrine" by Der Spiegel revealed. Italy, Spain and other southern EU members who, it might be thought, have most to fear from al-Qaida-inspired terrorism spreading north from the Sahel, are also steering clear of Mali's sand traps.

"It was right that France responded to the request for help from the Malian government (but) the deployment of German combat troops is not up for debate," said Guido Westerwelle, Germany's foreign minister. Germany might participate in a mooted EU training mission for Malian army forces, depending on events, he said. "A lasting resolution to the Mali conflict can only occur through a political solution that includes a return to order in the whole of Mali, taking into account the justified concerns of the north."

If such mealy-mouthed statements leave a bad taste, the reaction in Washington has been scarcely more palatable. The Obama administration says its is providing unspecified support. "We are obviously consulting very closely with the government of France going forward," said state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's defence minister, said the Pentagon has promised logistics help, satellite intelligence and in-flight refuelling for French warplanes in what he described as "total solidarity from the United States."

Le Drian should take a reality check. American policy in Mali and the surrounding region is currently in pieces. Washington considered its own direct intervention last summer, but decided it was too risky. The previous US approach, to build up Mali's army as a bulwark against al-Qaida, Ansar al-Dine and other Islamist groups, backfired spectacularly when leading US-mentored commanders went over to the rebels, taking arms and equipment with them, after another of American trainee, Captain Amadou Sanogo, led a coup in Bamako last March.

"I was sorely disappointed that a military with whom we had a training relationship participated in the military overthrow of an elected government," General Carter Ham, head of the US Africa Command, responded sadly. "There is no way to characterise that other than wholly unacceptable." A Malian officer was blunter. "It was a disaster," he told the New York Times.

Although Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal have been spurred into sending troops to Bamako, the laggardly performance of Ecowas and by association, the African Union, as the Mali crisis has unfolded has been seriously unimpressive. And although France has the backing of the UN security council, it cannot expect substantive assistance from that quarter, either.

A report by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, last November warned of the dangers of a hasty and ill-coordinated intervention. "I am profoundly aware that if a military intervention in the north is not well conceived and executed, it could worsen an already fragile humanitarian situation and also result in severe human rights abuses," Ban said.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, says France's campaign will last "a matter of weeks". Perhaps he really believes that. But how many times have politicians said such things when ordering military action? Experience suggests France, ill-served by its friends, has started something it will have great difficulty in finishing.

Contributor

Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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