The initial forces on the ground are there to take part in a United Nations-authorized mission to boost training of the Malian Army, ahead of an international force due to be deployed in the fall of this year. Several other European countries have also pledged to send trainers to Mali, but France surprised many with the swiftness of its action. President Francois Hollande laid out the thinking behind France’s decision in a speech on Friday:
“France, like its African partners, cannot accept this. I have decided that France will respond, alongside our African partners, to the request from the Malian authorities.
“We will do it strictly within the framework of the United Nations Security Council resolution. We will be ready to stop the terrorists’ offensive if it continues.”
France — which has a history of intervening in the region, such as in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 — had previously indicated publicly that it would wait for a further clarification of U.N. resolutions before taking action. While these forces are not necessarily mandated to engage in combat with the coalition of rebels and Islamists in control of Northern Mali, French diplomats are now arguing behind closed doors that previously passed U.N. resolutions give them the authority to do so, should France choose. Given the ease in which the rebels, whose make-up include groups thought to be affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), took a key town on Thursday, Hollande may make that call relatively soon.
France’s speedy response may help make U.S. decision-makers coming to a conclusion regarding the region far easier. After the Sept. 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, reports floated the possibility that the U.S. was considering launching drone strikes against AQIM. Those strikes never came to fruition, but remain a distinct possibility, as J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, sees U.S. counter-terrorism officials being increasingly open to air strikes. “Drone strikes or airstrikes will not restore Mali’s territorial integrity or defeat the Islamists, but they may be the least bad option,” said Mr. Pham, a senior strategy adviser to the U.S. military’s Africa Command.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has confirmed that France has already used its air force to halt the southern advance of rebels in Mali.