The French government have deployed troops and air power in Mali, assisting that country’s armed forces in attacks on Islamist militias who have been advancing from the north. French African media are reporting that helicopters have attacked Islamist positions around the town of Konna, which lies in the narrow part of the country between the south, which the government still controls, and the north, which is now controlled by various Islamist militias affiliated with al-Qaeda, which have been fighting over the territory with Tuareg rebels. There had been rumors in the past few weeks that Islamist forces, which apparently have tenuously held towns in that liminal area, were planning to launch more extensive attacks in the region, toward the town of Mopti, pushing much farther into government territory than they had before and imperiling the stability of the whole country (in recent weeks it had also been reported that more foreign insurgents were arriving near the front line, including from Nigeria — the Islamists in Mali have been intent on trying to masquerade as indigenous forces and dispel the image of foreign jihadists).
French president François Hollande, confirming the unannounced operation today, said that French troops will operate in Mali “as long as necessary.” The French government has also recommended that all its citizens leave the country. Le Figaro also reports that German troops are involved (“Merkozy Goes to the Maghreb”?), though this remains unconfirmed. France did not previously have troops in Mali, but it does maintain troop presences across Africa, including in Mali’s Francophone neighbors Chad and the Central African Republic. The United Nations Security Council previous approved authorization for a combination of a West African regional force with Western backing, but the actual force is not expected to be deployed for months.
The full-blown conflict between forces in northern Mali and the south was precipitated by a March 2012 coup in the country following alarming gains made in the north by long-standing Tuareg rebels (for background, I recommend this report from the International Crisis Group). Their advances were spurred by weapons and recruits they acquired after the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, which sent stores of weapons coursing throughout North Africa, and led many Tuaregs to flee the country. Mali’s own military forces were unable to do anything more than keep a lid on the insurgents in the north before the conflict escalated after Qaddafi’s fall; it’s now well known that they are even more incapable of winning back much territory without international assistance. The forces which the U.N. was probably planning to deploy this year would also not necessarily have been up to the task; ECOWAS (West Africa’s regional body) forces in the past have been inadequate at resolving conflicts — in 2011, for instance, it took French forces to resolve a low-level civil war in Ivory Coast, forcing out the powerful incumbent president after he’d lost an election. Françafrique is far from dead, and certainly in this case, the world should be grateful for it.
UPDATE: For those wondering under what authority France just dropped its 11e paratroopers into Mali, this appears to be a joint operation between France and the Malian government. The U.N. Security Council did approve a Chapter VII (“peacemaking”) resolution in December for an intervention in Mali — on its face, to strengthen and support the Malian government, but it would have been authorized to fight rebel forces, as well. But that group would likely have been mostly composed of ECOWAS troops, with just Western logistical and advisory support, and was probably not going to be deployed until this fall.