By all accounts, the French and African intervention in Mali to counter Islamist fighters advancing toward the capital has been more successful than expected, militarily speaking. The international Mali Support Group said as much at an EU-hosted meeting this week.

But the political as well as military evolution of the crisis is highly uncertain, as is the future role of the EU in the conflict. The lessons to be drawn from it at a policy level are an even bigger question mark. Recent successes certainly do not do away with the EU’s need to develop more robust common security and burden-sharing arrangements. And this includes the United States as well.

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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Cooperation between international forces has been smooth thus far. A rapid deployment of 4,000 well-equipped French troops and close to 4,000 African troops from seven countries has led to an equally rapid retreat of Islamist jihadists back to the north of the country. Intelligence support and in-flight refueling from the United States has been a crucial asset and will be reinforced by a drone base in Niger. Airlift support has been provided by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany.

Less visible—but equally significant in military terms—are the French army’s successful innovations in both army logistics and actual combat operations. New procedures for equipment deployment and priority railway transport in France have been used. Troops and armored vehicles were transported from Toulon to Dakar aboard the new all-purpose ship Dixmude, while there have been 100 chartered freight flights. In combat, Mirage and Rafale aircraft as well as Tigre helicopters are being used extensively. So will new assets such as a new infantry armored vehicle (the VBCI) and the FELIN integrated electronic infantry combat system.

All in all, despite the well-known structural shortcomings of its forces—in the realms of air intelligence, airlift, in-flight refueling capacities—France has pulled off a major and rapid deployment of a significant number of troops and equipment. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta acknowledged that he had been surprised by the speed of the French action. And speaking in Paris on February 4, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden hailed the “incredible competence and capability” of the French military forces.

However, the future of the French and African deployment in northern Mali will be more uncertain. The remainder of the jihadist forces are now tucked away in the mountainous terrain of the Adrar des Ifoghas, dispersed in small numbers over a vast area. Though their supply lines are disrupted and they have virtually nowhere to go, they hold French hostages and only a few rebels have signaled a willingness to talk.

French President François Hollande, during his whirlwind tour of three Malian cities on February 2, was keen to stress that the fighting was not over and that the most difficult job still lies ahead. Forget the light footprint and short duration that French leaders boasted of at the beginning of Operation Serval.

This is where politics will take over. The French-African intervention has saved Mali from becoming a sanctuary for Islamist jihadists overnight, but it has not corrected the weaknesses in the Malian political system. A state still needs to be reconstructed and a collapsed army still needs to be reinvented. If recent Malian politics are any lesson, the task should not be underestimated.

Finding a lasting political solution in the conflict over northern Mali, where ethnic Tuareg groups pressing for more autonomy have been taken over by various Islamist forces, will be very difficult. This was vividly illustrated during the European Parliament’s debate with President Hollande on February 5. Such a solution will take time and will undoubtedly require an armed presence for much longer than initially announced by the French political leadership, perhaps for several years to come, possibly under UN leadership rather than French and African. 

When it met in Brussels on February 5, the Mali Support Group welcomed the Malian Government’s Roadmap for the Transition aiming at a free and fair electoral process, the return to full constitutional order, and a genuinely inclusive national dialogue, which are key to address the instability in Mali, as well as to restore security and development in the Sahel region across the board and its bid to hold elections by the end of July.

Meanwhile, the EU as a whole seems to have lost its appetite for political and military involvement beyond funding contingents of African troops and setting up a training mission to help the Malian army reconstruct itself. Germany is maintaining its traditional aversion to troop deployment, as illustrated by Defense Minister de Maizière’s speech in Munich on February 1. The United Kingdom is satisfied with its current contribution to France’s deployment under a bilateral military cooperation treaty. Belgium, Denmark, and Germany’s airlift support has been very modest. 

This evolution of events has shed some light on EU defense and security cooperation. Only the “big three” EU member states—France, Germany, and the UK—have substantial military capabilities, but with Germany remaining reluctant to act Europe can only count on two armies. While substantial budget allocations have allowed France to stay on the cutting edge in terms of fighting capabilities, substantial gaps need to be filled either through pooling and burden-sharing arrangements at the EU or NATO level or through investment at the national level. 

The U.S. administration, while openly stating its willingness to “lead from behind,” has to come to terms with the fact that in Mali it did not take the lead but followed. Even then, some U.S. air assets (C-17s, reconnaissance satellites and drones) have proven to be irreplaceable in the short term. In the medium term, others (missile-firing drones, AC-130 and A-10 aircraft) may even have to be deployed in Mali.

In this regard, the crisis in Mali illustrates a new configuration, one in which France swiftly took the initiative (partly due to its national and regional interests being at stake, partly because it already had contingents of troops and assets deployed in several African countries) but still had to count on the United States to provide critical additional assistance and could not count much on other European countries.

NATO has so far been equally irrelevant in the Mali crisis, both because France did not request assistance and because the experience in Afghanistan still looms large in the strategic planners’ minds.

Whether Mali will provide a blueprint for future EU defense and security cooperation or not remains to be seen. But for the time being and unless EU political leaders revise their thinking—Germany on foreign intervention, the UK on whether it belongs to the EU, and the “big three” on whether they want a strong foreign and security policy leadership in Brussels—the Mali crisis illustrates a simple fact: there is very little prospect for a comprehensive EU security policy in the short and medium term. 

When the three largest member states weighed in on the making of the Lisbon Treaty and on the ensuing political appointments, the untold aim was to reduce the role of the EU institutions in foreign and security policy. But they ended up with even less policymaking than even they envisaged. 

Some contend that the EU needs much stronger military cooperation schemes in order to address the security risks in its wider environment—that is, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel. But by the very nature of the military assets necessary to address these risks, such operations, while devised by some EU member states, cannot be implemented without strong support from the United States. To be clear, the United States will have to accept involvement and risk taking, albeit “from behind” and under French or British leadership.

Beyond the military aspects, what has not been on the agenda recently is a comprehensive and multifaceted EU approach. The failure of both the European External Action Service and the European Commission to jointly propose policy well ahead of the Mali crisis has left the EU exposed. The Council of the European Union made its decision on January 31 to support the EU Training Mission to the benefit of the Malian army and to release frozen development assistance only after France had made a unilateral decision to act militarily and after the United States got into the act upon France’s request. Politically, France led and the EU followed belatedly.

Yet the EU possesses a wealth of expertise in peace negotiations, devolution of power to regional entities, police and justice training, business development, civil society support, governance reform, and more. Transferring this know-how to countries in need is the prime role of the European Union, one which should be restored to its pre-Lisbon levels in conjunction with the display of military strength by some of its members. The conjunction of instruments is key.

In legal terms, the EU is now better equipped than it ever was. Yet, in the Mali crisis, it has been less visible than it was more than two decades ago during the first Gulf War. In 1990–91, the EU was able to combine civilian instruments—emergency aid schemes and humanitarian assistance—with the military involvement of several member states. But it seems the Lisbon Treaty might have killed integrated policy thinking in Brussels. This situation should be revisited soon.