Intervention in Mali: First, Do No Harm

By Maria Prosviryakova

Interviewee: Commodore Steven Jermy RN, former Strategy Director in the British Embassy in Afghanistan


On January, 11 France deployed troops to Mali to halt the southern advancement of Islamist forces. The intervention was backed by the United Nations Security Council, with NATO allies providing logistical and intelligence support. Yet some analysts believe that Mali might turn into another Afghanistan or Iraq, dragging France into a prolonged conflict and bringing more harm than good to the country. Commodore Steven Jermy RN analyses the French strategy in Mali and the possible consequences of the intervention.


The announced purpose of the French intervention in Mali is to make sure that Mali doesn’t turn into a jihadist safe haven. But direct involvement in the fight against terror puts Paris and the rest of Europe in the spotlight as targets for terrorist attacks. What could be the costs and benefits of the French intervention?


These are very early days in the French intervention, so there are reasons to be cautious about analysis. I am not sure if the situation is as simple as the French think. The cost is a potential increased terrorist threat on mainland France. Because if the intervention is seeing amongst Islamic radicals as more Western intervention, then that could increase the threat to France. Grand strategically, it will provide further evidence for the radical Islamists' narrative about the imposition of Western values and power over Islamic peoples.


For example, that was one of the motivations for the July 2005 attacks in London. The suicide bombers were mainly British Muslims who were angry because of the British interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.


So, long land engagement in Mali will increase terrorist threat to French citizens and will affect France’s interests in the Middle East and North Africa. These are the costs that one needs to bear in mind.


The benefits will only be if the French are successful. That would result in a less radical state and would reduce the threat to French interests there.


French authorities acknowledged that the militants have turned out to be better-armed and equipped than France had initially thought. Seemingly, desert based insurgency can last longer than a French commitment to a country that is marginal to its fundamental interests. What is the possibility that the French intervention in Mali will turn into another Afghanistan or Iraq?



The first answer to this question is that we have to be very cautious about making judgments regarding to what will happen in the intervention until we properly understand the country. So, with that caution in mind, my early judgment would be that the possibility of a long engagement is indeed there, and the possibility of this turning into something like Afghanistan and Iraq is also there. We need to be very careful in using Iraq and Afghanistan as a metaphor meaning that “something goes wrong”, as both cases are very complex and difficult.


Is there a possibility that the French would be stuck in Mali for a significant amount of time? Yes, there is a danger that they might get bogged down in Mali. But it depends on the strategy they choose and on what their objectives are.


Unless the French can hand over the situation to sustained African forces, they could be committing themselves to a long engagement, based on the Afghanistan and Iraq experiences.


What do you believe the French strategy is?


We can make some deductions based on French actions. If this were going to be a large counter-insurgency strategy then you would need a much large force than the French have put into Mali. For counter-insurgency operations you roughly need 1 soldier or policeman for every 50 to 200 people in the population.


So, once you do the calculation you can see that much more troops are needed than the French have put on the ground. It tells us that the French are not pursuing a counter-insurgency strategy at the moment.


What they are probably doing is a rapid reaction to a potential loss of the country to Islamists, and the strategy essentially is to defeat the initial probes by the Islamists, and then to see what happens after that.


I would say that it is a learning strategy, and it is rather a counter-terrorism one at this stage. But I think we might have to wait and see what we would hear from the French about what their strategy actually is.


There is a lot of speculation regarding the recent Algeria hostage crisis. And it is hard to make sense of what happened. Among one of the terrorist demands according to the media was for the Algerian government to stop the support of the French intervention in Mali. How is this crisis linked to what is happening in Mali, if there is a link at all?


It is difficult to be definitive, at the moment, not least because the Algerian raid seems to have been planned two months ago, thus before the Mali intervention. What I think we can say, though, is that there is quite plausibly a linkage between Mali and the Algerian attacks on the one hand, and the French and British intervention in Libya on the other. The intervention in Libya had unintended consequences. The key consequence was the change in the political atmosphere in the Maghreb. What we saw in Libya was the removal of the regime, which had quite good intelligence services and quite good control over its population.


And in places they bear democracy which is struggling to exert it to authority. As a result there is not the same control over extremists and that has created an atmosphere which is different in the northern part of Sub-Saharan Africa.


So, I think there is no link between Mali on the one hand and Algeria on the other hand directly. I believe that both cases are just potential unintended consequences of the French and British intervention in Libya which increased regional instability.


Will the intervention help resolve the fundamental issues that Mali faces, such as discredited government in Bamako, an alienated northern part of the country, and many other issues? What could be a solution to the situation there?


I think we must question the intervention mechanism, whether it is a good thing at all. What is important is to be operating in a way which is congruent with the culture and the politics of the country in which one is intervening. There countries are all very different, thus they all need very different approaches.


On the one hand, if the intervention is accompanied by an intelligent communications effort, focused on improving the lot of the Malian peoples, then there may be some long term advantage.


On the other hand, it is possible that the intervention could, over time, have the opposite effect to that which was intended, if increased insecurity drives the majority Islamic population into the arms of the radical Islamists. The danger of the intervention is that it could actually provide a rallying call to radical Islamists to the place where they may want to take on the West.


I think there is potential for success there but it very much depends on the French getting the right strategy. In deciding what a strategy should be it is worth to take into account the following:

accurate cultural analysis, to ensure that the local cultural and political dynamics are fully understood.

not imposing a stock Western style democratic system in Mali, but rather understanding from the Malian people what their vision of the best form of effective governance for the state is, including considering the question of autonomy for Tauregs.

creating a strategy led by the Malian people, designed to implement this vision.


Thus, before deciding on whether or not to intervene we should ask ourselves the question if we really understand the country well enough. So that if we do intervene, we could do it in a clever way that would not make things worse.


And if you are not sure that you understand the country well enough then it is better to follow the medical approach: “First, do no harm”.


So, if the French deem they understand Mali well enough and if they are sure that the intervention will work, then there is a chance that they have a strategy that will be successful.


If their understanding of Mali culture, circumstances and politics is not very accurate, then I would recommend them to wait and sit on their hands.


The great danger when we intervene is that we make things worse rather than better. I think an example of that is Afghanistan, where I am not clear that after 11 years of intervention Afghanistan will be any better off when we leave it.