Originally posted on Stand Your Ground on August 21st 2012.
Original author: Giuliano Luongo, Economist at the University Federico II in Naples
Original source: http://www.unmondelibre.org/Luongo_Mali_intervenir_150812, checked on 21-08-2012.
(Translated from French to English by Thomas den Hollander)
As in all situations of political and military crisis, a proposed external military intervention is discussed as a way to resolve the crisis in Mali. ECOWAS has attempted to finalize a plan of action under a UN mandate. To assess the chances of such an intervention, it is necessary to recall briefly the conditions of military-political framework of the country.
A new ‘chessboard’ (i.e. situation)
Northern Mali proves to be the most unstable region of the country and it initially fell under the control of Tuareg rebels allied with the Muslim extremist groups, but now it is entirely within the territory of jihadists. Various Islamist militias arrived to push aside their former Tuareg allies, establishing themselves as the sole masters of the region.
This movement is not a homogeneous Islamist faction, but consists of various forces active in the major cities of northern Mali. The city of Gao in the hands of Mujao (Movement for unity and jihad in West Africa), AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) reigns over Timbuktu and Kidal is under the control of militia Ansar Eddine. The Mujao is a movement formed by dissidents of AQIM, which maintains good relations with the Sahrawis and the Polisario Front.
Besides the differences (mainly related to interest in the distribution of power), these three Islamist groups share common goals such as “maintaining the territorial cohesion of Mali” (instead of the Tuareg, who battle for a liberated Azawad as a sovereign state) and the introduction of Islamic law in its most extreme form. In recent days, there have been two first cases of application of Sharia (1).
Forces of the Tuareg MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) are very weak but still active: there are ongoing negotiations for their support to the national army against the Islamists. In the south, there is an increasing formation of independent militias determined to fight the Islamists. They are often formed by ex-northerners forced to flee.
In this context of constant instability at the international level the hypothesis of a military intervention continues to be evaluated – an idea already launched in the first days of the revolt of the Tuareg. Recently, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence Minister, Laurent Fabius and Jean-Yves Le Drian, declared the support of France to send a peacekeeping force organized by the military of ECOWAS, to contain and finally eliminate the presence of extremists. France, in all cases, will not take the initiative, in a, what Mr Le Drian defined as “inevitable”, intervention to prevent the transformation of Mali an Islamic state. Paris is concerned about a “backlash” from terrorist (executions of hostages in Mali, attacks on its territory …).
Given their weak military capabilities, African countries seem less enthusiastic, hoping foreign support (UN and USA in the first place) to conduct a major intervention operation. Few countries will be able – and determined – to send troops: Niger, Mauritania and Ivory Coast seem determined to intervene early and directly (because they are concerned to have an “extremist neighbor “), even if they do not have the necessary logistical means (and Ivory Coast has its own internal problems as well). Algeria refuses to engage outside its borders and Senegal (already committed in Guinea-Bissau) prefers to follow diplomatic channels with Burkina Faso to reach stabilization of the situation in Mali. In this context, the delegation of Burkina Faso met with representatives of Ansar Eddine, who call themselves “pro” mediation and willing to travel to Ouagadougou to continue to discuss, in contrast to Mujao or AQIM which have not met with foreign diplomats. Diplomacy, therefore, seems still an option but is a long complex: it will be chosen if there is no real possibility to intervene militarily.
In this regard, it should be remembered that an invasion with the goal of defeating a well organized terrorist organization is never easy, as we we’re taught Afghanistan. Mali is also a vast territory and very difficult to (re) conquer and control, where the majority jihadist forces are formed by soldiers who know their territory, and are therefore difficult to face. Again relations with the civilian population would be crucial: even if civilian groups openly demonstrated against the Islamists, many are unhappy with the previous administration and especially the brief period of the Tuareg, which are often accused of theft and rape against populations. Many people will join the ranks of the Islamic militias, thinking that only the jihadists can stabilize the country.
Another problem lies in the definition of targets and the conditions of employment of the “anti-extremist” militia: it will be difficult to generate results with an attack “front” because terrorists do not occupy isolated camps but begin to mix with the population in cities. A gradual infiltration with big secret services to neutralize the terrorist forces would work well. In addition, it would prevent the interposition force from making the country more unstable with excessive use of force: every mistake, every civilian casualty would result in increased support for extremists.
Should the authorities finally understand that the way for the country’s stability does not only involve suppressing extremist tendencies but also to avoid that current foes will become part of the a new government, we should work together to construct a legitimate government that does not become a new oppressive institution. And, unfortunately, this phase would probably be even more difficult than the fight against “terrorists”.
(1) On July 29, a couple was unmarried and stoning August 8th there was the first amputation of the hand of a suspected thief.