A Timbuktu Test For Europe

Last year soon after the fabled Timbuktu had fallen first to Tuareg separatists and then to jihadists linked with al-Qaeda, I wrote to various editors proposing a trip to Mali. They all said no.

The editors didn't see Mali's troubles as a big enough problem to warrant the expense and risk of putting someone on the ground. Now it looks as though many of the people making decisions about Europe’s defense and security thought the same way.

As French and West African troops pile into Mali, the country is shaping up as an important test for European defense, whether formally in terms of Europe’s Common Security and Defense Policy, or informally in terms of bilateral support. Europe's governments need to ask themselves if they are prepared to do more to help France's military, whether with logistical support or with troops.

The first thing to note is that Mali’s problems, and those of the wider Sahel -- countries on the belt of land that runs along the southern edge of the Sahara -- are not new. There was no lack of intelligence about them. In September 2011, the European Union prepared a detailed strategy paper on the region, with recommendations of what to do and how to tackle the issue of the Sahel becoming an empty space free for jihadists to roam. The U.S. also has been deeply involved there for more than a decade, training soldiers for counterinsurgency operations and closely monitoring the situation on the ground.

Clearly, the net result wasn't very successful. Otherwise, the Malian army would have been able to defend the north after Libya's Muammar Qaddafi fell in 2011, when well-armed Tuareg fighters returned from Libya to Mali. That changed the strategic balance between the rebels and the government.

Over the last few months, preparations have been made for an EU military-training mission. A United Nations Security Council resolution in December gave a green light to forming a West African military mission to send to Mali. Slowly the stage was being set for a reconquest of the north.

The international timetable was upset, however, when the Islamists made a pre-emptive strike from the north and the Malian government appealed to France to intervene, which it did on Jan. 11. Within days, on Jan. 16, a group of jihadists counterattacked at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, which supplies 2 percent of Europe's natural-gas imports. It appears that the attackers came from countries all over the region, including Nigeria.

On Jan. 17, EU foreign ministers met to give full support to the French and to accelerate in Mali the EU's training mission, which will start to deploy within weeks. They also agreed to help finance the West African peacekeepers.

The French have been welcomed by most Malians, despite their colonial history. "The French state is a liberator," said Salif Keita, the Malian singer, who has a big following in Europe. Malian musicians, more generally, have been singing for peace and condemning the music-banning Islamists of the north.

On Malian television, local interviewees say it is right that France should help Mali in its hour of need, because Malian soldiers of the legendary Tirailleurs Senegalais regiment died for France, including in the two world wars.

It isn't yet clear, though, whether the French troops will be joined by their European allies. So far, the U.K., Germany, Spain, Belgium and Denmark have offered transport planes and logistical support. France has not yet asked for boots on the ground, over and above those soldiers who will come as part of the EU training mission.

Neither has France called on the EU Battlegroup, the rapid-deployment force that was set up in 2007 for precisely these kinds of fast-moving circumstances, and has yet to be sent into action. The unit, currently on standby, is made up of about 1,500 French, German and Polish troops.

Whether or not the French eventually call on the Battlegroup, it is likely, failing a quick victory, that the rest of Europe will soon face a choice: either support the French and the Malians with real resources, or concede defeat in an area where Europe's interests, including its energy supplies, are directly threatened. Gilles Kepel, one of France's foremost Middle East scholars writes in Le Monde newspaper:

France going it alone, in a challenge that concerns the   whole of Europe on its southern flank, is untenable without rendering the European Union meaningless.

Libya and Algeria export much of their natural gas and oil to the EU. A third of Italy’s natural gas comes from Algeria, so it is clearly in Europe’s self-interest to prevent northern Mali from becoming the launchpad for attacks. Nigeria to the south, which for years has been under attack from the Islamic terrorists Boko Haram, is also a significant oil producer.

Unlike Syria, a far more complex problem, stabilizing Mali is probably doable. Even Russia, which opposed the international military intervention in Libya and now more forcefully in Syria, has offered to lift weapons and associated personnel to work with the French in Mali, according to the French newspaper Le Figaro -- something the U.S. has yet to do.

Although few Europeans are aware, the EU is already present in Africa. The EU is training security forces in Niger, while the U.K., for example, is working with Mauritania on counterterrorism. An EU naval force has been in action to crush piracy off the Somali coast, while the EU is also training Somali troops in Uganda and paying for African peacekeepers in Somalia. U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague described the EU's involvement in Somalia as a model for Mali, in a BBC radio interview this morning. He added:

What we don’t want in these countries like Mali is the 20 years of being a failed state that preceded all of that in Somalia.

The optimistic scenario is that, having been slow off the mark, the EU, or at least European countries acting together in one combination or another, is now ready to help in Mali, recognizing that, as the U.S. pivots to Asia, Europe will need to do more to secure its own interests in Africa and the Middle East.

As Le Figaro newspaper has noted, the U.K. was slow to wake up to the Sahel threat only realizing how serious it was when it understood the connections between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is now ensconced in northern Mali. Germans, too, need to understand the threat, according to Ute Schaeffer, the editor in chief of Deutsche Welle, who writes:

Mali has the potential to turn into a bomb under the whole region: Should Mali fall, the Sahel goes up in flames -- and that's a region that Germany, too, should finally realize is one of its immediate neighbors.

The pessimistic scenario is that if the French need help, their allies won't be there for them because of falling EU defense budgets and the doleful experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is Europe’s Timbuktu test: If Europe fails it, then the jihadists will win an important battle, in a war that will be far from over.

(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.