As you probably know, France has been at war for two weeks now. This does not change everything to our daily life and I don’t plan to raid the nearby supermarket for supply (well, maybe for cat food but that’s a vital necessity) and I am more likely to be stricken by a stray meteor than blown up by an islamist bomb. The bulk of the political class supports the war and while the anti-imperialist crowd can still be heard, it is far less loud and numerous than usually and while there are a few questions to ask our president about the procedure – he didn’t notify the National Assembly, for instance – the principle of the intervention is contested only by marginals and outsiders.
What is most interesting in this affair, however, is not the war, or whether it is just or not it is justified, but the fate of client states in the time of decline.
It is not the first time a bunch of religious fanatics ride out of the desert to take over a country. Students of Spanish history will remember the Almohads and the Almoravids, who nearly stopped the reconquista. More recently we had the Mahdist state in Sudan and the Wahabi of Arabia, who threatened the Ottoman Empire and sacked the Shia holy city of Karbala in 1801.
This has never been a muslim speciality, by the way. Driven out of Acre, the Teutonic Knights set up a monastic state along the southern coast of the Baltic coast during the early XIXth century. They "converted by the sword" the Baltic tribes and found themselves at war with nearly all their (Christian) neighbours. As for the Roman Empire, it had to fight Jewish apocalyptic sects, often on the battlefield.
It is not the first time France intervenes in the area either. Mali was conquered by France at the end of the XIXth century after the defeat of the last native state, Samory Toure’s Ouassoulou Empire. It was then integrated within the French colonial empire.
Moreover, unlike in Indochina or Algeria, France was not driven out. It decided to leave.
After the take over of the French government by De Gaulle in a quasi coup in 1958 and the drafting of a new constitution, the African French colonies were stuffed into an ad hoc structure, the French Community, headed by the French president. In practice that meant that the colonies were now free to run their internal affairs as they saw fit while France kept the control of military and foreign affairs and of the economy. There was an attempt at creating a federal structure uniting west-african colonies into a coherent whole, the Federation du Mali. It failed, because the richest colony, Ivory Coast did not want to subsidy the other ones, and only Senégal and Mali joined.
The French Community was dissolved de facto in 1960 as France granted independence to everybody. The Fedération du Mali disappeared quickly, following a slight disagreement about the name of the president, and what remained was a string of weak, artificial states with often unstable governments, subject to regular coups.
Of course France did not really left. Only its civil servants did. They were replaced by large corporations such as Elf-Aquitaine or, more recently Areva, and by a network of “advisors” nicknamed the “Foccard Network”, from the name of the French (not so) official in charge of France's African policy.
The goal of this policy, nicknamed “Françafrique” was to make sure that France continues to enjoy a privileged access to African resources and that African wealth continues to flow toward Paris. African rulers were also supposed to support France internationally... and to send wallets full of banknotes to whatever party held power in Paris at the moment.
France also kept military bases it used to support dictators (such as Mbaa in Gabon) or to remove those who had become, let's say, annoying – for instance His Imperial Majesty Bokassa the First, Emperor of Central Africa. Of course, more shadowy, if not really subtle, methods were used. Just ask mercenary Bob Denard – or rather don't ask him, he has conveniently caught Alzheimer's disease before dying a near beggar.
Former French colonies have, in essence, become French client states. This situation has advantages, mind you. Paris guarantees the independence of its vassals and has proved perfectly able and willing to back its words with boots and guns. When, in 1983, Lybia launched 11.000 troops across the Chadian desert, France drew a line in the sand and sent 3.000 elite soldiers (mostly marines and legionaries) and several squadrons of Jaguars.
It did it again in 1986, and while Chadian technicals ousted Gaddafi during the 1987 Toyota war, it would have been far more difficult if the French air force had not grounded its Lybian counterpart, turning the Lybian army into a collection of isolated garrisons which could be defeated in details.
This protection had, however, the same consequence as for all client states in history : military impotence.
The armies of former French colonies, with the recent and possible exception of Chad, are walking farces. The 7.000 strong Malian Army has collapsed last year before a rebel force half as numerous and in 1977 the whole Comorian Republic was conquered by 43 mercenaries led by Bob Denard.
It is not a bug, it is a feature. When your independence is guaranteed by a foreign overlord, you have no incentive to build an even moderately efficient army – and said overlord may not be so happy at your doing it, as it makes regime change more costly. You may even have an incentive not to build an efficient army. This army might, after all, use its new force to topple you. If the armed force of Gabon hadn't be a pushover in 1964, President Mbaa would have had to find himself a new home and a new job, and, by the way, there is a reason why a third of the 5.000 strong Gabonese army belongs to the presidential guard.
Besides, when you can count on a powerful ally to intervene and save the day when things get rough, you tend to become complacent... and not to fight to hard. That's why a few hundreds rag-tag rebels managed recently to conquer a great part of the Central African Republic, sweeping away a 4.500 strong national army, which most of the time did not even bother to fight. Only French, South-African and Angolan sabre-rattling saved President Bozizé's regime and convinced its opponents that negotiating was a better idea than storming a capital held by somebody who could actually shoot back.
The problem, of course is that overlords have a limited shelf life, and their client states rarely survive them. We know, for instance, what happened to Indian princely states when the British Raj left. Many of them were to small to be viable (the state of Darkoti, for instance had 632 inhabitants for 5 square miles), but some were larger than many European states. Yet, their combined military amounted only to 18.000 men in 1941 and those native rulers who played with the idea of independence saw their dreams quickly quashed. The Indian army took a mere five days to crush the forces of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1948. A mere threat was enough for the Kingdom of Travancore.
France is no longer a world power, but it still has an efficient and modern army. Man for man, the Legion or the Troupes de Marine can stand up to anything the United States can field. We can manufacture our own third generation tank (the Leclerc) and fourth generation fighter (Rafale) and are not dependent on any foreign power for small arms and ammunition. We even have our own modern combat suit (the FELIN program).
The problem is that our projection capability is limited, and more so with every passing year. During Operation Desert Storm France fielded 18.000 soldiers, less the Egypt, and only because we benefited of American logistics. Alone, and in a combat situation, we would be hard pressed to field more than 5.000 men, mostly the Legion and troupes de marines. That's more than enough to defeat a bunch of jihadists or the army of some African rogue state, but not enough to take on somebody serious. We played a major role in the Libyan Civil War, but only because Libya was in range of our air force, which enabled us to effectively support insurgents. We couldn't do the same thing in Syria, for instance, as our lone carrier is operational only 65% of the time. Even in Mali, our deployment would have been far slower, if the United States had not loaned us three C-17ER Globemaster III transport planes.
And this won't get better with time. France is a medium-sized country, with few industries left and virtually no natural resources. We produce only a tiny fraction of our energy and even if some of our clients supply us with oil (mostly Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville) or uranium (mostly Niger), that's hardly sufficient.
As a privileged ally of the United States, we also benefit from the tribute economy they have set up, even if it is to a lesser degree. That means, however, that we will suffer from its decline – in fact we already do – as we depend upon them to continue to funnel a disproportional share of the World's resource our way. When the United States will cease to be a global power, we will no longer be able to keep the sea-lanes open and to guarantee our continued access to the many resources we need.
Besides, even though we manage our resources better than the US, we need a continued inflow of high quality resources to make our society work. If we don't get enough of it, our infrastructures will begin to decay and our society to unravel.
In fact it is what is happening right now. We are slowly dismantling our welfare state, either by selling it off to private interests, diminishing service quality, or by dumping whole services on local authorities. Of course, this also impacts our military. The project of second carrier has been cancelled and we can be sure that the Charles de Gaulle will never be replaced. The production of the Leclerc main battle tank has been stopped – even though we retain the capacity to produce them, should the need arise.
More insidious, but more important, budget cuts will negatively impact maintenance and training and trigger a slow but steady slide into unreadiness. The intervention troops will remain fully operational longer, but they too will be hit by the erosion of our logistic and the increasing unreadiness of the support arms.
It is only a matter of time before we can no longer wage war even in Africa. We may experience a military defeat, or be quietly told to please vacate the place, or just throw the towel, the result will be the same for our erstwhile vassals : they will have to provide for their own defence.
They may find another overlord or rely on local alliances, as the Democratic Republic of Congo did during the Second Congo War. This will be a temporary solution at best, however,. Without fossil fuels, and without the technological superiority European polities enjoyed during the modern era, global empires will become a thing of the past. As for African states... if the Second Congo War proved that a few African states (namely Zimbabwe and Angola) can project their force to prevent a regime change, they are unlikely to keep this capability for long.
On the long run, if those states do not develop a real, autonomous military tradition – which would mean getting rid of today’s predatory elite – they will be overrun by rebels and warlords, islamist or not. Ultimately the polities they will create will coalesce into stable and permanent states. It may be a relatively quick process, like in Northern Somalia, it may be a long chaotic one like in Dark Age Britain or France. In both case this will involve severe cultural losses. A few of those losses will be beneficial - Africa could and should do without colonial languages and neo-colonial predatory elite – most won't. The idea of democracy will likely be an early casualty (the practice is not so widespread in the area).
It is in great part our fault. The native states we conquered during the scramble for Africa were hardly perfect but they were the emanation of coherent and healthy societies. We have replaced them by weak states dependent on us for their survival and for which the energy descent is likely to translate into utter chaos.
The only thing we can try and do now is eliminate the most barbaric threats while we still can do it – and that's why the present war is a relatively good thing – and help them develop the self-reliance they need.