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Mali: In the Eye of the Storm

By Mohamed El-Khawas

Guyana Journal, January 2013

WASHINGTON, DC, January 24 2013: Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, was considered to be a model of democratic governance in Africa. In 2010, however, troubles surfaced, with two failed coups seeking to overthrow the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Toure. Discontent was caused by many factors. First, top officials were accused of corruption and mismanagement of national resources. Second, low-ranking officers and conscripts were unhappy with their low salaries and the government's failure to build a strong army. Third, ethnic conflicts lead to factionalism, regionalism, and armed confrontation. The light-skinned Tuareg in the north, who are ethnically different from the black Africans in the south, have always complained about discriminatory treatments by the south-dominated government. They blame the government for their widespread poverty and regional underdevelopment. These conflicts led to the birth of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which sought to establish a state of their own in the desert north. Another unusual factor was that many Tuareg men gained valuable experience serving in the Libyan military during Muaamar Qaddafi's years. For example, the MNLA's current leader, Billal Ag Acherif, served as a colonel in Libya. After Qaddafi was toppled, he and his countrymen returned to Mali and brought with them an assortment of sophisticated weapons from the Libyan stockpile. Bolstered with new arms, the secessionist movement launched an insurgency in the northern region in early 2012.

President Toure's weak handling of the crisis led to a coup attempt in March 2012 by the country's armed forces. Captain Amadou Sanogo seized power and formed the National Committee for the Recovery of Democracy and Restoration of the State. He called for building a strong army and issued a new constitution that would empower a council of 26 military officers and 15 civilians to rule the country during a transition. He was willing to talk with the insurgents but ruled out the partitioning of the country.

The coup did succeed but it destabilized the government and left the military without top leaders. Taking advantage of the chaos following the bungled coup, the MNLA seized control of the three northern provincial capitals - Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu - and declared an independent state in the north, an area the size of Texas. Soon after, three Islamist groups swept across the north and ousted the MNLA leaders. These Islamist groups include the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and the Movement of Openness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has been operating in the Sahel region since being forced out of Algeria in 1990s. Their successful fighting and their enforcement of a strict Islamic code led to the displacement of 200,000 Malians who now live as refugees in neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.

Foreign Military intervention

The growing Al-Qaeda threat in Mali has alarmed West Africa, Europe, and the U.S. Initially, French socialist President Francois Hollande was against France's unilateral military intervention in its former colony. He pushed for multinational intervention, warning that Al-Qaeda's success in establishing a foothold in Mali could soon pose a threat to Europe. The U.S. supported military intervention but insisted on an African-led force, a position that was supported by the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Following the arrest and forced resignation of Mali's Prime Minister Cheick Mobido Diarran in early December 2012, France called for immediate military intervention in Mali. On December 20, the UN Security Council finally authorized military intervention by an African force of 3,300 to assist in rebuilding Malian security forces and liberating the northern territory. African soldiers would come from the ECOWAS countries, including Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo. Furthermore, Chad, Mauritania, and South Africa were urged to provide military assistance.

West Africans hoped that Algeria, which shares borders with Mali, could be persuaded to participate in the military efforts. It has strong military and intelligence capabilities and experience in fighting militant Islamists. Its government also came under intense pressure from French and American officials, whose regional strategy to combat Al-Qaeda's threats counted on Algeria's participation. However, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has been reluctant to join the fight and favors a negotiated solution. He is also afraid that Algeria's involvement in Mali might cause problems at home among its 50,000 Tuareg citizens. Furthermore, a successful intervention “could push extremists out of Mali and back across its borders.” Sensitive over his country's sovereignty, he only agreed to allow the U.S. and France to use Algeria's airspace to transport equipment and supplies on a case-by-case basis.

Funding of the International Support Mission to Mali was problematic. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recommended against using the organization's own funds for Mali's operation as he feared that the chaotic situation would result in many civilians being killed. As a diplomat pointed out, “There could be serious human rights questions raised and I'm not sure it's a good idea for the UN to be directly involved.” Ban Ki-moon urged UN member states to voluntarily contribute funds. France and other powers expected the U.S. to pay a large portion of the cost.

Although the Obama administration backed the African intervention, it was not in a position to commit funds to Mali right away. It was facing a political struggle over how to handle its own fiscal cliff crisis, which would have automatically raised taxes, cut federal spending, and set back the country's economic recovery. Furthermore, by law, Washington is prohibited from giving military aid to the West African country because its democratically elected government had been overthrown. After the coup, the U.S. had stopped military support and withdrew Americans who were providing military training to Mali's security forces. It was also an embarrassment to Washington that the coup leader Sanogo was trained in the U.S.

In December, the Malian government issued an urgent call for French and American military intervention to save the country from falling into the hands of terrorists and extremists. Tuareg and Islamist fighters had pushed south and captured Diabaly, a strategic village in central Mali, 250 miles from the capital, Bamako. Under sharp criticism at home, French President Hollande changed his stance and decided to act unilaterally rather than wait until the African forces were trained and ready for Mali in fall 2013.

France quickly sent 2,000 troops and military equipment to Mali. When the Islamists pushed south and captured Konna on January 10, the French began a ten-day airstrike on Diabaly. When French and Malian troops finally entered the village, the Islamists were gone. Daibaly's mayor, Oumar Diakite, reported however that “the Islamists are also in the surrounding villages.” So far, the French and government forces have been unable to turn the tide against Islamist rebel forces. The arrival of 700 soldiers from Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Togo might help the French campaign.

To assist the overall effort, the European Union (EU) is now training Mali's security forces and the U.S. is training the pan-African units prior to their deployment in Mali. The U.S. has already transported French troops and equipment to Mali, provided surveillance and shared intelligence with France. Currently, the Obama administration is considering a French request for aerial refueling and armed drones. The White House may also try to persuade Congress to authorize increased aid to France's military efforts, especially in the aftermath of AQIM's seizure of Algeria's In Amenas oil complex near the Libyan border. The reason for the Islamist takeover of the oil facilities was to retaliate against French killing of Muslims in Mali.

In Mali, the French should expect a long and messy war because they are facing well-trained, well-armed, and well-organized groups because they are mobile and have a tactical advantage because of their familiarity with the ground layout. They have revealed some parts of their strategy during their operation in Diabaly. When they took over the village, they did not impose strict Islamic laws because their stay was temporary. They avoided major losses by leaving during the night. They have been quick to adjust to new developments. In emergencies, they can shed their uniforms and change to jeans, shave their beards, and mingle with local residents. Colonel Seydou Sogoba, head of Malian military operations, admitted that “the war against the Islamists is not an easy one.” The campaign will be long and messy.

Mohamed El-Khawas, Ph.D., is a professor at the department of Political Science, History, and Global Studies at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, DC. He is the co-editor of Case Studies of Conflict in Africa: The Niger Delta, the Bakassi Peninsula, and Piracy in Somalia (Mellen, 2012).