French President Francois Hollande, who announced the surprise deployment, did not say how many French soldiers were on the ground or exactly what their mission is. But officials said French aircraft conducted strikes Friday, and Hollande promised that France’s participation in the fighting would “last as long as necessary” to guarantee that Mali’s government and army can maintain control of the former French colony in northwest Africa.
“At stake is the very existence of the Malian state,” he said in a televised declaration.
Hollande’s decision to intervene dramatized European and U.S. concerns over rapid military gains in recent days by the half-dozen Islamist and Tuareg militias that have controlled the northern two-thirds of the country for more than seven months. Ruling more than 250,000 square miles, they have scattered Malian soldiers southward, imposed strict Muslim laws on the civilian population and created a vast new haven for North African terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The slide into political chaos in northern Mali concerns the West for several reasons, including the possible spillover of militancy and weapons to neighboring nations and the relative ease with which West Africa-based militants might attack Europe.
Still, the United States has been leery of rapid international intervention, preferring a slower approach that coordinates military help with economic and political support.
France’s decision to send ground troops, even if they are restricted to small groups of specialized forces, marks a departure from Western powers’ efforts in recent years to avoid direct involvement on the ground in foreign conflicts, after scarring experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The West’s heavy participation in the 2011 campaign to overthrow Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, for instance, was limited to air power.
The United States has joined with France and other European governments in seeking to organize an African military intervention force to restore Malian government authority. But a senior French security official acknowledged recently that the African force is nowhere near to being ready, meaning that France had to intervene on its own if it wanted to respond to the immediate crisis.
“The terrorists have regrouped in recent days along the line that artificially separates Mali’s north and south,” Hollande said in an earlier talk Friday to assembled French diplomats. “They have even advanced. And they are seeking to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali. France, as is the case with its African partners and all the international community, cannot accept this.”