PARIS — Remember “Mission Accomplished”? It was May 2003, and the banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier proclaimed U.S. victory over Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In 2008, the same Republican president who was responsible for the Iraq War, George W. Bush, said the U.S. could not afford to lose in Afghanistan. By September 2011, it was then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron celebrating their success in Libya. More recently, on Jan. 14, 2014, François Hollande took his turn to declare “victory against terrorism, for democracy, for development” in Mali, one year after the start of Operation Serval. At least for the latest intervention, in the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), the French president plainly recognized that “the work was not done yet” one month after French troops were deployed.
Of course, every military intervention has different objectives and conditions. But since the beginning of the 21st century, wars carried out by the world’s superpowers have had two main purposes: to defeat terror, like in Afghanistan or in Mali, and to protect civilian populations, like in Libya or in the C.A.R. The stated purpose for the war in Iraq was of a different nature: to destroy weapons of mass destruction, which proved nonexistent. Iraq in 2003 was supposed to be America’s test lab for the democratization of the Near and Middle East, and for a global transformation based on the troubling views of neoconservatives.
But, whatever the pretext, all these post-Cold War interventions — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the C.A.R. and even in the Ivory Coast and Mali — have led to a more or less similar result. In each case, leaders in power were toppled, and a new regime emerged. But can these interventions lead to something beyond organizing elections? To political transitions that allow stability and implementation of the rule of law?
The infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner for President Bush's 2003 speech aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (Juan E. Diaz)
We are far from it. Two years after American troops withdrew from Iraq, the country has fallen into a deep political crisis. The conflict between Shiite and Sunni factions has intensified, with the growing presence of groups linked to al-Qaeda. Indirectly, this conflict has consequences in Syria, with the infiltration of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Syrian rebellion.
In 2001, Americans and their allies, backed on the ground by Afghan opposition forces, overthrew the Taliban regime in Kabul, Afghanistan and appointed Hamid Karzai to the presidency in just a few weeks. But now, just a few months before the withdrawal of the American and allied troops and a new presidential election in April, Afghanistan is in chaos once again. Not only are the Taliban still attacking government forces, but al-Qaeda is also getting stronger.
“Fracafrique” is dead
France seems to have had more success — for now — in Sub-Saharan Africa. Partly because, unlike the U.S., Paris has colonial experience that enables the country to return to a familiar ground in the guise of “reluctant police force.”
Another difference between Iraq and the French interventions in Sub-Saharan Africa is that the latter were carried out with a United Nations mandate and the support of the African Union.
“Françafrique” is dead, but as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has pointed out, France still has influence in Africa, not to mention cultural and historical links. France has also kept stand-by forces there.
But the country must now reexamine its security plan in Sahel. Because victory, even in Mali, could be short-lived. The bases of fighters linked to al-Qaeda in the north of the country have indeed been destroyed, but many of them have dispersed or still maintain a presence, like in Kidal. For lack of stabilization and far away from cries of victory, Libya also remains a hotbed for departure and retreat for these fighters.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, elected in September 2013 as head of a weakened state and a still-divided nation struggling to resolve tensions with the Tuareg, faces huge challenges. In addition to this, the French and now UN troops are struggling to consolidate their security advances, as the International Crisis Group recently pointed out.
And the task, for Catherine Samba-Panza, the former Bangui mayor elected this week as head of C.A.R., is Dantesque. This might force the French troops into staying longer than announced, like in Mali. Unless the African countries manage to take over and secure the country. But, like in the Middle East or in Central Asia, post-intervention stabilization is not a steady path.