Yesterday Malian President Dioncounda Traoré asked the French to help halt the advance of Al Qaeda-linked militants who have taken over the north of Mali. Since requesting French assistance the Malian army has been pushed back from at least one engagement by the militants, who are moving south. French President François Hollande said that he was prepared to assist, but only within a U.N. framework. The U.N. Security Council called for a “swift deployment” of troops to the region. 

The deployment was swift. Only a matter of hours after the U.N. Security Council called for troops to be deployed it was reported that French troops (whose status remains unclear) are in Mali and that planes from the French air force are assisting Malian forces.

Hollande justified the quickly developing intervention, saying that it was allowed under international law and had been agreed to with Traoré.

It is too early to tell how effective French support will be in halting the militants’ advance south. Part of the difficulty will be identifying the enemy. An article appearing in The Guardian featured a statement from a local journalist that summarized some of the potential difficulties:

On Thursday rebels captured the town of Konna, less than 40 miles from the strategic city and army base of Mopti. The situation in Konna is described as complicated, with army personnel still in the town but rebels now in control.

"There are Islamists controlling Konna, but they are integrated into the population, it is very difficult for the army to fight them," said Boubakar Hamadoun, editor of the Bamako-based newspaper Mali Demain, who has reporters based in the north. "It is a very complicated situation."

Perhaps more worrying that the nature of the conflict is that Hollande has not set a deadline for the intervention, saying that, “This operation will last as long as is necessary."

The French government is intervening in Mali because there is concern that Mali could become an Al Qaeda stronghold from which terrorist attacks on Europe could be launched. However, as at least one French official has pointed out, the intervention could lead to terrorist attacks on French soil.