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Mali: Dien Bien Phu All Over Again?

The French are known for eating small portions, but in Mali they may have bitten off more than they can chew:

France ordered new airstrikes overnight against Islamist fighters in central Mali, as the government in Paris pledged on Tuesday to commit more troops to a potentially protracted campaign against extremists pressing south from a jihadist state they have forged in the desert north of the country.  

On Monday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had his own “mission accomplished” moment,  announcing that French forces had halted the Islamist advance through Mali just hours before extremist forces captured Diabaly, an important Mali military post. The Islamists are now closer to the country’s capital than ever, and France is more than tripling its forces in response. Mali’s Islamists feel confident that France is getting sucked into a conflict that will be much harder than it ever imagined, against an enemy that can play the long game:

France “has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia,” Oumar Ould Hamaha, an insurgent leader, told Europe 1 radio. Stirring longstanding fears that the far-flung military operation in Mali could inspire vengeance as far away as Europe, he warned that the intervention had “opened the gates of hell for all the French.”

It’s too early to tell whether Mali will really become a quagmire; insurgents always make grand claims about their power, but only some are able to make good on it. Even so, France clearly underestimated the initial jihadist military strength in Mali, and the country is already turning to the US for logistical support.

France needs US help, and the US should give it. Just as France’s Libyan intervention failed because the country ran out of military supplies, France’s Malian adventure could collapse without our support. But the situation nevertheless raises alarms. The last time the US supported a major French military operation was the infamous Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam during the First Indochina War. The French were completely routed, and the US launched the Vietnam War soon after. We hope Mali doesn’t turn into another Dien Bien Phu.

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