Tag Archives: France

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.