The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

War in Mali

January 22, 2013

Mali’s increasingly violent insurgency has received considerably less attention in the international media than Syria’s civil war, even after France’s recent military action to support the country’s government against extremist Islamist rebels linked to the al Qaeda terrorist organization. Nevertheless, US and other Western leaders could benefit from reflecting on both the fighting in Mali and on international handling of the crisis there.

First, the fighting in Mali clearly demonstrates the law of unintended consequences—major decisions, like decisions on the use of force, almost always have significant unintended and unexpected consequences. Mali already struggled with internal divisions and conflict prior to the US-NATO intervention in Libya, but there is little question that Libya’s collapse accelerated and intensified the violence there, as heavily armed Taureg mercenaries returned from Libya to Mali after Moammar Gaddafi’s fall.


Fractures and realignments among the rebels eventually produced the Islamist-dominated forces that have made recent gains. (See the Washington Post ’s “9 Questions about Mali You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask” ) Leaders considering military action would do well to think about possible second-order consequences before taking decisions.

Support of China and Russia

At the international level, it could be useful to compare and contrast reactions of the United Nations Security Council—particularly its permanent members—to France’s military intervention in Mali, on one hand, and to US pressure for aid to Syria’s rebels, on the other. Though it has received little media attention, the Security Council expressed unanimous “understanding and support” for the French action in Mali, meaning that both China and Russia endorsed President Francois Hollande’s use of force. Beijing and Moscow have of course blocked Security Council support for intervention in Syria.

Why are China and Russia prepared to endorse Western military action in Mali but not in Syria? There are two important reasons. First, and likely most significant, France’s military action is to support the existing regime in Mali and not to drive it from power, as the United States and others seek for Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

As a result, the French intervention is at the request of and in support of a sovereign government. Chinese and Russian officials are prepared to accept this notwithstanding their strong opposition to the use of force as an instrument of regime change.

Second, China and Russia are both deeply concerned with the spread of violent Islamist extremism in the arc from West Africa through the Middle East to Central Asia. Both countries have experienced domestic terrorism linked to extremist Islamist groups, and neither wants to see extremists overthrow Mali’s government. At the same time, neither is prepared to intervene itself, due to a combination of limited capabilities to project power and limited will to provoke potential retaliation by acting—especially if others are ready to do so. So France’s intervention benefits both China and Russia without imposing any costs on either.

Washington's Options

The Obama administration clearly also has a limited desire to become entangled in Mali, though it has provided logistical support to French forces. Ironically, however, even as Chinese and Russian interests have led the two countries’ governments to provide Paris with rhetorical support and political cover from the United Nations, American principles are also limiting Washington’s involvement.

Because Mali’s current government seized power in a coup, US law limits the assistance that the United States can provide and specifically prohibits direct military assistance. (See the Washington Post ’s “U.S. Weighs Military Support for France’s Campaign against Mali Militants” ) Thus, somewhat perversely, precisely when China and Russia support a military intervention, the United States cannot participate directly.

The fact that France is clearly quite willing to use force in Mali—less than two years after taking a lead role in launching the US-NATO war in Libya—is also striking, particularly as the two interventions were conducted by different presidents from competing political parties. According to a recent poll in France, 75% of respondents support President Hollande’s decision to intervene, as a result of which some 2,500 French soldiers will be deployed. (See’s “Hollande Mali Intervention Backed by 75% of French, Poll Finds” )

The broad support appears to reflect a combination of interest in a former colony, concern about Islamist extremists, and humanitarian impulses. Together with the intervention in Libya, it also makes clear that notwithstanding what some may think, there are European governments entirely ready to use force when they consider it necessary.

Still, it is far from clear whether Paris will have the ability or the desire to stay in Mali for too long. The Libya intervention lasted long enough to show that its main sponsors—France and Britain—did not have the resources to sustain operations over an extended period. And some in Asia may still remember that America’s involvement in Vietnam began because France lost control of a growing insurgency in another of its former colonies. French leaders—and US officials tempted to increase America’s contribution to the French mission—would do well to consider where it might lead.

    • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest / President, Energy Innovation Reform Project
    • Paul J. Saunders
    • Paul J. Saunders

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