As we enter the fifth week of the French-led military intervention against Islamist forces in the Mali conflict, many commentators are already declaring the mission a clear success. In reality, the effort is far from over. Mali remains wholly unequipped to fend off the influence of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its local affiliate; the Ansar Dine. For instance, Timbuktu is still reeling from the damage inflicted by extremists during their 10-month rule of the city, which included implementation of a radical and grisly brand of sharia law.
These jihadists are well connected to Somalia’s Al-Shabaab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and have been – according to the Human Rights Watch – engaged in public floggings of unmarried couples, amputations, rape, the imprisonment of women, and the recruitment of children as child soldiers. Had François Hollande not taken bold action at the request of Mali’s government, large swaths of the African country would likely resemble a Taliban state, while threatening global security. As Robert Fowler – a retired Canadian diplomat who was held by AQIM for 130 days in captivity – put it, even a partial success of this lethal collaboration between extremist groups “would create an economic and humanitarian disaster of barely imaginable dimensions.” He added ominously, “The suffering of Darfur would pale in comparison.”
Moreover, as so often occurs in a conflict scenario, a humanitarian crisis – exacerbated by spiraling food prices – has emerged in what was already one of Africa’s poorest nations. The long-term stability of Mali and the West Africa region will require a long-term solution, not a quick military intervention.
It is vital at this point to examine the current Mali conflict and compare the current reality with the goals initially articulated by France – Mali’s former colonial master, as well as the United Nations Security Council and the African Union – both of which have endorsed foreign intervention to prevent Mali from becoming a hub for radicalism and direct threats to the West. The presence of extremists in Mali is not new, but the level of threat they pose increased exponentially after a March 2012 coup by members of Mali’s military. The coup resulted in widespread instability, emboldening extremist groups eager to deploy weapons acquired during the 2011 conflict in Libya. The coup also led countries like Canada to suspend millions in humanitarian aid to the country, yet in late January Ottawa pledged $13 million in aid for food and nutrition, health care and medical supplies, and hygiene and sanitation. The announcement was made at an African Union donors conference, which raised $453 million.
The United States and Canada have provided assistance to France’s military initiative, including aircraft and intelligence support, but both have ruled out sending troops to the country and embroiling their governments in another protracted fight against al-Qaida just as the mission in Afghanistan is winding down.
Short-Term Successes, Long-Term Challenges Ahead After the Mali Conflict
This week a delegation of US lawmakers led by Senator Chris Coons visited Bamako, Mali’s capital, and noted that while the French effort has been “swift, decisive and effective” at ridding the north of jihadists, there remain “longstanding internal tensions in Mali that reflect development challenges, and political fractures and ethnic tension that may be dramatically worsened by how the French and their allies … and the Malians conduct themselves in the field in the next few weeks.” With these words, Coons dared to deliver a verdict the French hoped to evade – the reality that a decisive victory over jihadists remains elusive. The northern city of Gao, for instance, has been the site of numerous suicide attacks.
Aguissa Ag Badar, a former tour guide who now works as a one-man “Vigilance Brigade” against Islamists, told the New York Times that while he supports the French-Malian-African military offensive, he questions their tactics; “why are they only at the checkpoints and in their camps? The war is here in the streets.” Indeed, rather than disappear into the mountains of the north, the militant groups have taken refuge in small villages – which practice a fundamentalist brand of Islam and whose youth are often recruited to join the fight – so as to surround key cities like Gao and attack in concert. Adding to the complexity, it is nearly impossible for even the Malian forces – let alone the foreigners, to distinguish the native jihadists from the civilian population in these villages. While this presents obvious challenges, they must be overcome in order to truly incapacitate the Islamist groups and restore stability within Mali’s borders.
Priorities Now that the Mali Conflict Is Over
1. The French-Malian-African force must take Senator Coons’ warning seriously and pay attention not just to what they do, but how they do it. This will have serious implications for the future stability of the entire region. Will the international force simply focus on the larger cities, or will they devote the intelligence-gathering and targeted Special Forces operations required to face extremists – and their supporters – in small villages? More broadly speaking, commanders of the mission need to recognize that they cannot easily contain AQIM.
2. The international community must lend political capital and technical support to the roadmap for transition adopted by the Malian National Assembly in Bamako. As Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird noted, “It is important for the country to work toward free and fair presidential and legislative elections…[to] restore democracy, constitutional order and territorial integrity to Mali.”
3. A lasting solution to the Mali conflict must not only be long term in its vision, but nuanced in its dealings with different ethnic populations. Foreign forces must condemn, when appropriate, the actions of its partners in the Malian military. For instance in the unacceptable, indiscriminate targeting of whole Tuareg communities, assuming they shoulder collective responsibility for protecting Islamist rebels. As David Petrasek writes: “lasting success will depend on the extent to which the recapture of territory is coupled with genuine efforts to accommodate the legitimate grievances of northern Mali’s Tuareg population.”
4. Western opinion shapers should end the futile debate over whether Mali justifies invocation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, and instead focus intellectual energies on the precarious situation facing West Africa. R2P is to be invoked when a state is unwilling and unable to put a stop to mass atrocity occurring within its borders (or when the state itself is the perpetrator of that criminality). At this point, AQIM and Ansar Dine are not perpetrating a mass atrocity, and moreover, the Malian government issued a direct request for foreign troops to help fight the Islamists. Their plea for help was echoes by two UN Security Council resolutions. Bringing R2P into the discussion about the international community’s role politicizes the Mali conflict unnecessarily and detracts attention from urgent strategic and humanitarian objectives. Furthermore, the notion that the NATO R2P mission in Libya led to weapons traffic that strengthened AQIM and other extremist groups leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many.
For more on the R2P issues at hand, read David Petrasek’s analysis here.
The Next Chapter for Mali
While many complain about the lack of consistent media coverage on the civil war in Syria, the situation and intervention in Mali have received even less attention. This is a shame, since what is happening in Mali concerns all of us. Were the country to be taken over by al-Qaida and its affiliates, it could launch attacks directly against Europe and North America. While Western powers are most of all eager to avoid being enmeshed in another conflict against unpredictable Islamists, the activities of radical groups must not be allowed to continue unabated. In short, it is too early for the French to pack up and return home, just as it is too early for Canada and the U.S. to retrieve their limited, yet valuable contributions of equipment and technical assistance for the international effort.