Will North Africa Be Europe's Afghanistan?

By Jonathan Fenby
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Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle wants to avoid a rerun of the result of Germany's hesitation over the attack on Libya and abstention from the UN vote on the no-fly zone to support rebels there. Chancellor Angela Merkel said last October that she supported a joint European Union mission to train and support the Mali government forces, and Berlin is talking of humanitarian, logistical and medical help, but sending in combat troops is out of the question, particularly for a government which has just run into fresh trouble in local elections. However, deploying only humanitarian aid would identify Germany with the authorities in Bamako in the eyes of the rebels and still could make them targets.

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Echoing Cameron, the specter for European government is of a new Afghanistan across the Mediterranean. For all its weakness, they feel they can bolster the government in Bamako, even if it is an interim administration installed after a coup and lacking democratic legitimacy.

Equally, the Afism force was meant to offer an African presence in place of European troops even if the West African states had trouble getting their act together. But the attack in Algeria, ostensibly mounted to protest Algeria granting overflight rights to French intervention forces, has driven home the extent to which a military mission that was intended to fit a limited defensive agenda can give rise to a far wider and longer-term threat, with the major unanswered question of whether either the French or the African troops would push on into the desert to seek to eradicate the AQIM forces with all the attendant perils. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president, has spoken of "the danger of a military operation without a clear enemy, with the risk to civilians that is bound to engender hostility among the citizens." Looking at the potential reaction to a military mission into a region where the countries involved once carved out possessions for themselves, he also warned of "neocolonialism."

An opinion poll in France published on Sunday gave the intervention in Mali 60 percent support but Jean-François Coppé, president of the opposition center-right UMP party, said he was worried by his country's "isolation" and called on Hollande to spell out "the criteria he will consider the objectives have been achieved."

Rebuilding a functioning state in Mali, which would involve granting a degree of autonomy to the Tauregs in the north, will be a tough enough task. Extending the exercise to eradicate AQIM would be far harder and longer. For historic reasons, a European power, France, moved into the breach but with its economy stagnant, Paris cannot continue the commitment on its own. The Obama administration appears not to see this as its fight. With the eurocrisis unresolved, internal wrangling over its institutional arrangements, concerns about the economic challenge from Asia and a looming German federal election, is the EU in a frame of mind to take on a major new commitment in such uncertain terrain? The answer must be negative, but as Afghanistan and Iraq have shown, exit is trickier than going in.

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Jonathan Fenby is a London-based commentator and author of The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved. © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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