HUFFINGTON POST

France Has Been Focusing On Destroying Mali's ‘Cancer’ Of Extremism For Years

The continued French intervention in Mali has helped stem terror's spread across West Africa.

WASHINGTON -- It's still unclear what France's next big move against the Islamic State group will be. President Francois Hollande promised a ramped-up assault following last week's deadly ISIS attacks on Paris and began selling it as a way for Washington and Moscow to cooperate against extremism.

What observers can be sure of is that the French are ready and willing to fight terror. 

(A caveat here: military action is not guaranteed to end terror, of course, and experts say other tactics -- like focusing on ending Syria's devastating civil war -- will be central to any effective plan to destroy ISIS.)

Any actions taken by France, one of the most skilled and most interventionist military powers in the West, against ISIS will likely be informed by its recent history of combating armed violent extremists including in the current fight against ISIS, as well as in the Middle East, and elsewhere.

The French have been active in the international anti-ISIS effort since last year, single-handedly launching nearly one-fifth of the non-American strikes against the group. They've also deployed forces to locations as diverse as Afghanistan, to defend that country's government against the Taliban, and the Central African Republic, to help stem sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims.

Gérard Araud, France's ambassador to the United States, spoke with The Huffington Post the week before the Paris tragedy about one of France's largest and most high-profile counter-extremist efforts abroad: its campaign in the landlocked West African nation of Mali. That ongoing fight made headlines Friday, after extremists took 170 people hostage in the country's capital. But it's largely been ignored in the West -- except by the French.

Groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known by the acronym AQIM, and the more locally oriented Ansar Dine began to gain power in northern Mali in 2011, as the various anti-government forces there acquired arms pouring out of Libya after its revolution. 

The central Malian government responded tepidly and then faced its own challenge when soldiers successfully staged a coup in March 2012.

By January 2013, rebels, many of them radical Islamists, had overrun more than half of the country, which is significantly larger than France. The French entered the conflict with airstrikes and hundreds of troops just weeks into 2013 at the request of the Malian government.

"We intervened in Mali in January 2013 because we thought that the country could become a terrorist state," Araud said. He described the French interest in Mali as two-fold: it was linked to the beleaguered government as the former colonial ruler of the country and there was a security imperative to prevent the spread of radicalism because of the large population of Malians in France, who often travel to their country and then return to France. 

Though Washington played a role in the anti-terror effort, through actions like airlift support, Paris was in charge. France declared the campaign -- dubbed Operation Serval and characterized by improvisation, specific goals and limited deployment -- a success by September 2013. Still, extremist elements remained active and ramped up attacks through 2014.

France responded to the changing threat in August 2014 by launching Operation Barkhane, an ongoing campaign involving 3,000 French soldiers. This next step in the counter-terror effort there relies heavily on African partners, notably Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Mali itself.

The U.S. continues to help, Araud told HuffPost, but Paris has had to lobby to ensure an ongoing American presence, given competing priorities.

"For us, this support is critical. It's not very easy on the American side, because the Americans say, you know, 'We would want to move our means to Iraq and Syria,' so, we have regular contact with the Americans on this topic," Araud said.

French and American special forces actually helped Malian troops storm the hotel that militants took over on Friday.

Araud emphasized that Mali's problems are not fully resolved. "Mali has been independent for half a century and basically has been in and out of civil war between the population from the south and the nomads, the Tuareg, in the north," he said. France is placing its hopes for long-term stability in an ongoing United Nations political process.

Comparing the extremists' spread to "a cancer," the French diplomat said preventing them from gaining power across North Africa, including in countries that are relatively calm, like Tunisia and Algeria, was dependent on political reconciliation in Libya. Ending the civil war in that country, where the Islamic State group has developed a presence, is a priority for this fight, Araud said.

A French soldier of the 93rd Mountain Artillery Regiment, part of the French Army's 'Operation Barkhane', on June 5, 2015.
A French soldier of the 93rd Mountain Artillery Regiment, part of the French Army's 'Operation Barkhane', on June 5, 2015.

President Barack Obama has personally urged regional powers to end their proxy war in Libya, as HuffPost revealed in June, but a resolution still appears out of reachThe process seemed even more doubtful this month when the news broke that the UAE, one of the states meddling in Libya, offered a cushy post-retirement job to the U.N. official who had been managing that portfolio.

Because France is now expected to invest more in combating ISIS in the Middle East and has officially requested European Union help in the fight against terror, its treaty allies are planning to take the place of some of the French forces in Mali and its neighbors. Friday's attack, which claimed at least 3 lives, was a reminder that Al Qaeda and other groups there are still capable of destabilizing the region.

But the reduction in the French presence is unlikely to shake observers' faith in the French promise: when the country sees a need to act, it will.

This story is part of the second installment in The Huffington Post's "Diplochats" series, which will interview prominent diplomats on important global issues. (Note: The series was previously known as "Ambassadors Unplugged." Previous stories in the series can be found here.)