What does a successful intervention look like?

28 Jan

For the past ten days or so I’ve been reading the BBC’s updates on the French military intervention in Mali. Day by day I watch the colours on the BBC’s map of Mali change, the red points of air strikes dispersing further to the north and west while the blue points of towns recaptured by French and Malian troops multiply and surge towards Timbuktu.

Timbuktu – a longstanding metaphor for the mythic, mystic end of the earth. A distant point that has become the pivot of BBC’s Mali map. In the context of this conflict, Timbuktu has shifted from the exotic to the familiar, but it remains a distant grail. When (if) Timbuktu is recaptured, it will feel (to me, to us) as though Mali has been retaken.

After initially finding surprisingly few deployed friends and surprisingly well-organised enemies, France’s intervention appears to be going well. The rebel forces are being pushed out of the lower half of the country, and back into the northern wilds. There may be hope of a swift, decisive intervention. Not the bloody quagmire of other recent interventions.

What exactly would a successful intervention look like, though? The word itself suggests only that France and friends will turn up, will get involved. Pacification could be measurable in terms of peace achieved or claimed. Neutralisation might be measured in terms of opposition thwarted or incapacitated. An intervention seems a far more logistical concept: the BBC reports on the number of troops intervening, while offering few details about what they’ve actually done (and to whom).

Intervention seems a pretty vague term, especially if it is being arrayed again an opponent willing to embrace a more aggressive mission: occupation, decimation, purification (I’m not claiming that these are actually the ideas espoused by the rebels in Mali).

France’s intervention is being conceptualised as an urgent response to the southward push of the rebels ahead of the arrival of troops from other African nations. It is being articulated as a mission of salvation, preventing Mali and West Africa (and maybe even Europe) from falling into darkness. In that sense the BBC map offers another vision of a successful intervention. When all of the known points on the map are the blue of ‘recaptured by French and Malian forces’, when there is no need to hatch parts of the map as ‘rebel controlled’ and nothing left to mark red with ‘French air strikes’, maybe the intervention can be called successful. When Timbuktu, the only known point on the map, is reclaimed, perhaps the intervention will have achieved the only endpoint it could possibly have had in mind. And all those other Malian unknowns – the children pressed into military service and bodies dumped down wells; the human element which is conspicuously absent from a static political map – will be overlooked in the interests of wiping all those clashing colours off of the map.

This seems to be the peculiar logic of intervention. It is always born of emergency, of exceptional circumstances, always demands the putting aside of other considerations in order to pursue the imperative of action. We must do something; we will worry about the consequences of our actions later.


10 Responses to “What does a successful intervention look like?”

  1. Evan George January 28, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

    Does anyone else think its odd, hilarious, or devastating that no news media, not even the Huffington Post (from as far as I can tell), is even questioning why the French are intervening in Mali? Its just taken as a given that France was a colonial power of the region, and sure they still have strong economic ties to the area, but that has nothing to do with it, its because the Islamic radicals must be stopped and its France’s turn this time around. Every news source just says, “violent Islamic extremists,” and we are all programmed to think, “oh okay their the bad guys from Mordor, lets get em!” But seriously I want to ban the phrase “Islamic extremists” because it eliminates all debate or discussion around the causes of an event and we are lead to believe that “these people” are crazy fanatics who can not be understood through rationality. I really don’t know who to be more angry at, governments who use the military as an instrument to protect the economic interests of their corporations, the media for completely giving up trying to inform the public of whats going on, or us, the public, who allow this to happen because no one has invented a convient app on our iphones to “change things.”

    • phillegitimate January 28, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

      Well this nicely brings up all the stuff I decided not to include in this post. I think the Mali intervention, if you compare it to, say, the Syrian non-intervention, was a very easy sell.

      You’ve got the spectre of ‘islamic extremists’ (as you mention), the threat of a well-armed, trans-national militant group, the possibility of interrupting big business (as in the nearby Algerian gas field hostage crisis). All these things add up to a strong case for intervention. I’m not saying I agree with it, but there’s plenty there to allow France to sell itself as the good guy, the defender of the faithful.

      On the other side… there isn’t really much. Where’s the counter-argument? For a western audience, the rebels don’t have many redeeming features. They’ve even been detonating heritage sites. Too, too easy to cast them as the bad guys. This is the sort of conflict that few people think twice about. Even invading Iraq involved more PR work than this (no need to invent WMD here).

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Devin February 1, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

    Loving this discussion, but my comment got too long. http://leagueofdogooders.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/dont-worry-everyone-its-a-success-according-to-france/

  3. Devin February 1, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

    Aso interesting: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/01/world/africa/timbuktu-endured-terror-under-harsh-shariah-law.html?hp&_r=0

    This article made front page of the NYT today, written in the anti-Islamist rhetoric that you mention Evan…and the authors wrote from DC and Paris. It is written like a horror story. I do not doubt that the human rights abuses reached this scale in Mali, but the writing style is definitely a blatant Western media play.

  4. phillegitimate February 2, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    Yep commenting on my own post today. Less than a week on and the BBC’s map has turned blue. No more airstrikes, no more rebel controlled towns. The French president has even made a trip to Timbuktu.


    I think there is something positive about a head of state turning up so soon after an ‘intervention’. It does suggest a closer connection and concern than just some distant figure making decisions about another country’s fate.

    At the same time, though, it’s hard to overlook the colonial resonances. Hollande has made it to Timbuktu, that most distant and elusive of destination. The French has retaken the city, and apparently they’re being invited to stay.

    Interpretation is a slippery thing; you can find colonial resonances in almost anything (a few academic disciplines depend on this), but still it’s interesting that Timbuktu was chosen as the destination for a carefully orchestrated media event.

  5. georgina February 2, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    In my humble interpretation I think it was a well PR-orchestrated intervention (sans fabricating motive). Short and quick, locals testimonials seem to favor and praise the intervention, Britain and the US supporting from the side lines and President Holland seized the perfect photo-op at the historical site of Timbuktu. But, does it mean that it was successful? Like Devin said, that lies in the eye of the beholder.

  6. Devin February 2, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    I like this quote: ‘”We must tell him that he has cut down the tree but still has to tear up its roots,” she added, referring to the Islamist militants’

    Interesting how so many local residents are wishing that the French would stay long term. It definitely reinforces how the French intervention is generally welcomed in Mali, but interventions have been welcome before at first, and that has worn away with time. The colonial connotations within the intervention and within the relations between Mali and its former colonizer have played, continue to play and will always play a major role in the interplay between France and many West African states. Moving forward, I do believe it is best for France to continue playing a political role in ensuring equal Tuareg representation in Malian politics…but as for the military base, which was Moustapha Ben Essayati’s wish, I think that may be a hard sell with the French population back home.

  7. Devin February 5, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

    Successful or unsuccessful, I think we can all agree that the reopening of schools is always a good sign – a sign that communities are regaining their sense of ‘normalcy’ following a very difficult year: http://www.irinnews.org/Report/97409/Schools-reopen-in-Mali-s-Timbuktu

  8. georgina February 5, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

    Agreed! Apparently in Gao as well …”about 600 pupils out of a normal attendance of more than 1,100 children turned up for school, its headmaster Abdou Cisse told AFP”




  1. HREC Panel @ NYU International Ed. Conference | Human Rights and Education Collaborative - April 10, 2013

    […] Our panel is entitled ‘Human Rights Emergencies, International Interventions.’ Stephanie and Devin will be presenting research which they’ve previously discussed at the Human Rights and Education Colloquium (and which Steph presented at CIES). Philip’s presentation is an elaboration on some earlier blog posts about the crisis in Mali. […]

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