Going to Mali

French President Francois Hollande could argue that France, which for long has repeated that it is no longer "Africa's gendarme", had only one option left in Mali. Islamists had taken over Mali's northern half almost a year ago, but their fresh advances this month convinced the French advocates of intervention since last year but insistent on an African force in the lead that they could no longer wait. Once Mopti in central Mali fell, the rebels would capture the capital Bamako soon. That would not only create a terrorist state with easy plane access to Paris and the EU but also endanger France's longstanding interests in Francophone Africa.

While the three Islamist groups including the al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) aren't necessarily in agreement, their common objective of an Islamist state, if achieved in Mali, could overrun other western African states. The AQIM, though nothing like the original al-Qaeda, gained ground after Muammar Gaddafi's fall in 2011. Their global reach is debatable. But the steady influx of weapons from Libya now seen to be an arms bazaar via the old drug trafficking routes and the AQIM's links to Nigeria's Boko Haram and Somalia's al-Shabab, offer the spectre of an expanded Islamist network.

France has added troops on the ground to its air strikes, with limited support from the UK and the US. The Economic Community of West African States is sending troops, with the biggest contingents from Nigeria and Chad. Yet, even as the domestically beleaguered Hollande gets a boost, it's not clear if the intervention will succeed. As with Nicolas Sarkozy and Libya, political capital can swiftly evaporate. And as Iraq and Afghanistan have taught the US, interventions risk military mission creep and stalemate. Yet, this French adventurism is interesting at a time when the US, under the "Obama Doctrine", seems reluctant to plunge in. The backlash, arguably, might be worse than the problem.

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