In early 2012 a group of Salafi-Jihadi militant groups took control of northern Mali’s major population centres prompting a French-led international intervention that incorporated the African Union and other regional militaries. On January 11th 2013, French forces started a successful offensive that stopped Mali’s complete collapse, allowing sufficient leeway to hold elections in July 2013 during which democracy was held to be the victor with many people openly defying threats of violence to cast their votes. Largely forgotten in the wake of the horrors of Islamic terrorism in Kenya and the continuing conflagration in Syria, could Mali offer a model of successful intervention in conflict?
After a year of armed Islamic control by al-Qaeda in the Mahbgreb (AQIM), Ansar Eddine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the French led military, along with troops from Chad, largely pushed back these groups to the strongholds of AQIM in the Ifoghas Mountains on the Algerian border and to Timbuktu and the towns along to Niger River. The French intervention has been rapidly followed by a UN peacekeeping force of some 11,200 troops and 1,440 police, supported by a permanent force of 1,000 French troops working on counter-terrorism. Officially the French Operation Serval ended on August 11th when the UN force took over, and the French President declared victory at the inauguration of a new Malian president, Ibrahima Boubacar Keeta, in September 2013 following a successful election.
On the face of it, this has been a textbook intervention, lasting a short period of time and ending in a successful election. However, as always, taking an election as an end point papers over the cracks in the edifice. The French drawdown is greatly complicated by the state of the Malian army which has been in decline for some years, and the control of the area around Kidal by the Tuareg MNLA, an area that they refer to as Azawad. There have been recent clashes between the Malian army and the MNLA and it falls to the President to renegotiate a peace deal, even as the mood in Bamako seems to favour a reconquest of Kidal. Reconquest or peace both offer uncertainty with internal Tuareg divisions offering instability within the region under either course.
In fact, prior to the insurgency up until 2012, President Touré, deliberately exploited these divisions, offering largesse and favours to those who acted on behalf of the state. These vast desert regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu comprise some two thirds of the territory of Mali but only 10% of the population. Malian governance consisted of farming out state functions to favoured local groups, frequently undermining the traditional aristocratic class of the Tuaregs, but also allowing other external influences to gain power in the region, including criminal organisations, disputed levels of Islamic radicalisation and temporary tactical alliances. It is these political shifting sands that could lead to further instability in West Africa, not just in Mali.
Militarily, the chronically weak and factionalised Malian army is supplemented by a variable African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) and along with the French drawdown, the Chadian troops are also withdrawing citing an inability to fund a guerrilla war in Kidal. Despite a rapid deployment, the African troops of AFISMA are not well equipped, particularly in terms of logistics, intelligence, airmobility and communications. There are also issues with clarity of command, even within the Malian army, which a French General noted was “unstructured”.
The European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) is attempting to improve capacity by training four battalions of 650 soldiers in 15 months. Even if this is possible, these troops will still be within a poor quality military framework, plagued by poor and politicised command structures, lack of equipment and no civilian oversight. There is a clear risk that for any such mission to succeed, it has to be in place for some time, if only to prevent trained troops defecting to the other side as happened to all ranks during the recent conflict.
Even if these efforts succeed in improving the operational capability of the Malian forces, they will have to face a transnational network allied to powerful political interests, including within the Malian political and military hierarchy, that is partly reliant on criminal activity. Drug trafficking in particular, thrives within Mali and Niger and well established networks trade cannabis and other, harder drugs, as well as continuing Mali’s ‘traditional’ role in illicit trading of arms and other tradeables. Desert routes have long been involved in international trade, with some of the best known routes coming from West African ports in Guinea and Mauritania and passing through Mali on their way across the Sahara into Libya, Egypt and the Middle East, before entering Europe.
This trade would not be possible without high level collusion, thus French and international efforts in the Tuareg and other territories held by rebels will not address the real issues facing Mali unless there is a concerted effort to break the links between regional civil and military authorities and illicit trade. Building institutions – like training military battalions – will not address issues of criminality or terrorism without significant political will. At the same time, the fallout from continual conflict in the Sahel, including Libya, has produced a wave of migrants who exist in variable conditions in places like the Mali-Algerian border where terrorist penetration remains a real danger.
So what can the international community do to help? For a start, there is a need to tackle these issues regionally, so promoting intelligence sharing, managing and monitoring financial flows related to drugs and weapons, and combining military approaches. However, this goes against the prevailing approach of the international community, which is largely to become involved in state building focussed on individual states. This can produce islands of stability such as Sierra Leone, but where territories have such porous borders as Mali, this makes the approach of constructing state institutions less effective. Elections are important, but an effort that restores the status quo will not rid Mali of the continuing issues that undermine issues to improve governance or improve security to people living in marginal areas. The lessons of short term solutions are that they produce short term solutions and not long term ones. For Mali really to be a success, a series of underlying issues need to be addressed and this will take years.
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