CRISIS IN MALI: THE FRENCH INTERLUDE

Canberra, 08 March 2013
On 8 January, the acting President of Mali formally requested French assistance to roll back the advance of rebel Islamic forces that had already overrun the entire northern part of the nation and was in the process of advancing on the town of Mopti, on the way to the capital Bamako. The French Air Force went into action on 11 January against the Islamist column advancing on Mopti and stopped them from taking the town. Subsequently the French forces recaptured all the towns that had fallen to the rebels and pushed them back to the Tegharghar Mountains, from where the rebels have initiated a guerrilla war. It is also certain that they will resort to the favourite weapon of Islamic rebels—suicide bombings to kill innocent civilians, the first of which has already taken place.
This situation has been more than a year in the making. The year of turmoil started with the return of Tuaregs who had been in army service of the Libyan dictator Gadhafi and were forced to return to northern Mali on Gadhafi being overthrown and killed. They formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA, acronym for the French title of the group) and took over the northern part of the country. Subsequently there was complete breakdown of the democratic system and an army coup in the capital. After months of negotiation, the UN approved 3000 troops (drawn from African nations) to combat Islamist elements in Mali, and in December passed resolution 2085 that approved the formation of African International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) and its deployment for a period of one year. The rebels consist of a number of groups some with no connection between them other than the common goal of establishing the Sharia Law in the nation. Five major groups operate in the area—Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Islamic Movement for Azawad and the MNLA. Other than the MNLA all the others are Islamist extremist groups who are keen to destroy the Sufi shrines and areas of worship located in what has so far been a very tolerant nation, spread jihad to all of West Africa and internationalise the Islamic agenda. The MNLA is more ethnic oriented in their goal of protecting the right of the minority Tuareg community and creating an independent homeland for them.
The primary task of the French intervention forces [I hesitate to use the term ‘French-led’ since only some logistic and technical support has been provided by US, UK, Denmark, Canada, Belgium and Germany.] was to prevent the disintegration of the Malian state, which could have been a portent for repercussions in neighbouring Niger, Algeria and Mauritania—their fledgling democratic institutions would have been vulnerable to the destabilising influences. Mali could not have been allowed to collapse—it would have led to the export of revolutionary jihadists and the provision of a safe haven for them to use as a launch base. This would have destabilised the entire region from Senegal to Niger on a long-term basis and posed a direct threat to Europe’s security. Mali had to be saved; the alternative was too alarming even to contemplate. There was also the consideration of the immediate safety of over 6000 French citizens in Mali itself, as well as embassies, businesses and private citizens across North Africa. Another underlying, if not openly acknowledged, reason for the alacrity with which the French government reacted to the request for help is the fact that France has critical economic interests in the region—for example the uranium mines in neighbouring Niger that belongs to the nuclear company Areva.
Six weeks into the intervention, French troops along with the Malian Army and forces from Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso have secured most of the northern part of the nation and the rebels are now holed up in the mountains. A European Union led military training mission and AFISMA are being stood up. However, the African multi-national initiative will be challenged by the rebels resorting to guerrilla tactics and will have to be prepared for a long war of attrition. Success in this endeavour would require steadfast adherence to achieving the objectives, a long term strategy to counter the inevitable insurgency and terrorism that will follow, and availability of the necessary resources for as long as it is required. It is the availability of adequate resources that is the Achilles’ heel in most counter-insurgency operations, and in this case too it may prove to be the defining factor. [The plus side is that standing-up AFISMA is a tacit acceptance of the responsibility towards ensuring the security and stability of the region by the African nations.] The above is a brief statement of the facts of the events as it has occurred till now. Why did such a virulent insurgency take hold in Mali? What is the optimum way forward from the current fragile stability based on military control? What are the different opinions regarding the operations? What does this intervention mean for similar situations that may necessitate intervention in the future?
The Root Cause of the Crisis
Until now, the intervention has had visible success in stopping the advance of the rebels and pushing them back—but assessed by any yardstick, the uprising is far from being fully contained.  The Malian army is still skirmishing with pockets of resistance and there is a palpable worry at the command level that the rebels could regroup and launch a powerful offensive as (if?) and when the French troops eventually pull out. The rebels are a collection of mixed and disparate groups. The major groups are internally generated (domestic) Islamists, foreign jihadists who have come in to spread ‘pure Islam’, and the Tuareg secular separatists. The groups have conflicting agendas and have almost completely splintered into different groups since around April 2012. The challenges to putting an end to the conflict are many—the radical insurgents will not negotiate and are definitely going to continue guerrilla actions; Tuareg separatism that will not be easy to brush aside; and bringing to heel the armed ex-Libyan army members who are unpredictable in terms of which group they would join and whose influx initially gave an impetus to the uprising. The fundamental reasons for the uprising to take place could be broadly clubbed under three factors: the demand for an independent Azawad; ineffectiveness of the government; and perhaps the most important, the drug-trafficking boom in the Sahara.
A Separate Azawad. The Tuareg, a Berber people of northern Africa, have inhabited Western Sahara for more than 1500 years. They number around 1.2 million and are spread across five African nations—Mali has about 500,000 Tuaregs, concentrated in the Azawad region. Except for a very tiny sultanate in the Air Mountains of northern Niger, the Tuaregs have never had their own state. After Mali gained independence in 1960, the Tuaregs have staged three rebellions to end perceived and actual discrimination from the government in Bamako. These rebellions did not demand independence, but a more equitable distribution of wealth and more autonomy in governance. The current and fourth one for the first time fundamentally demands the establishment of an independent secular state for the Tuaregs—a free Azawad. The secular forces declared an independent Tuareg state of Azawad in April 2012, but failed to get international recognition. Immediately after this, the MNLA was sidelined and the hard-line Ansar Dine group took over control of the uprising, although they were numerically far inferior. The Ansar Dine is built around a core of highly motivated foreign fighters and the group as a whole is the best trained amongst the insurgents. Somewhere along the process of the rebellion and the declaration of independence in Azawad, it mutated into hard core shariaisation [if I can coin/use such a word] with the vision of secular, political independence replaced by the violent enforcement of bans on ‘un-Islamic’ activities and the imposition of Sharia law on the parts of the country that had fallen to the rebels. How this swift shift from secularism to hard core Islamic traditions took place is not clear—but it happened; and the Ansar Dine was able to impose Sharia in its most orthodox form in the territories that it controlled. The Malians have traditionally been very moderate in their observation of religion and did not take very kindly to the extreme form of Islamic practice, and the rebels enforced their precepts through vicious, violent and harsh actions. They did not endear themselves to the local population.  
Governance, or the lack of it. President Amadou Toure, in power since 2002 till deposed in a military coup in 2012, was a strictly democratic leader who attempted to govern through a ‘consensus democracy’ by bringing the opposition also into the government. [It must be admitted that this is in stark contrast to most ‘democratically’ elected African leaders who tend to put the opposition in jail rather than provide them an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the building the nation.] However, there was a visible lack of policy development and implementation and corruption was rampant within the Toure administration. It was corruption that undermined the government’s efforts to alleviate the endemic poverty of the Tuaregs, which had led to repeated rebellions in the region. This corroding influence also percolated deep into the military forces—morale was at a low ebb; equipment was obsolete and not obtained in the quantity required to convert them into coherent capabilities; and combat readiness and effectiveness was almost non-existent. This unviable situation of the military forces manifested in two ways. One, dozens of soldiers were butchered by the rebels at the start of the insurgency that led to the second, disgruntled military personnel ousted President Toure. A military junta took over, but handed over power to a civilian administration soon, although the junta is alleged to be running the country by proxy.
The Drug Nexus. Traditionally (in medieval times) Mali and Ghana traded in gold and salt. In modern times, the trans-Saharan trade has changed its hue with smuggling of consumer electronic goods becoming the primary trade. While this is detrimental to the growth of indigenous economy, drug trafficking that has taken hold is more damaging. The Sahara has become the vital transit route for South African drugs bound for Europe, with an estimated 60 tons of cocaine passing through every year (estimate of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2009). Even more damaging to Mali’s security was the arrival of Islamic extremists with an abundance of money—a new recruit to an Islamic extremist group was paid a monthly salary of $900; this in a country where the average annual per capita GDP was $1100. The jihadists also paid for community projects like building water wells, which initially made them welcome in the local society, although the acceptance did not last long.
The Way Forward
The only viable solution to the current conflict is to negotiate with the secular and moderate Tuaregs to stabilise the nation in return for greater autonomy and self-governance for the Tuareg region, short of outright independence. The MNLA has indicated its willingness to negotiate and this has been supported by the acting President Dioncounda Traore. However, the rebellion has driven a wedge between the black Malians and the Tuaregs—the trust that existed between the communities has been, at least for the moment, fully dissipated in the aftermath of the internal conflict. Further, reconciliation has to be attempted bilaterally between the government and the secular rebels without the benefit of any facilitators. This is because the former colonialist, the French, who are now ‘helping’ the nation back on its feet and the obvious choice as a go-between, has received a mixed reaction. The mixed reaction is understandable: the French have been colonisers in the western part of Africa for the past 180 years; they invaded Algeria in 1830 and later fought bitterly against the independence movement; the French assisted in destabilising Congo; and generally France has supported military dictatorships all over Africa. Africans will be reluctant to accept the assumption that France is in Africa this time only to help Africans.
The crisis in Mali cannot be solved militarily. Military operations can only bring about a stable environment in which to evolve and execute politically viable solutions. In this instance, it will require the people of Mali to find a solution which they can take ownership of, with the support of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Fundamental to achieving this is the necessary withdrawal of French troops. This is a complex situation, since the withdrawal of French troops could lead to a new escalation of the insurgency and as yet it is unclear whether or not the Malian Army and the forces of AFISMA have the capacity to contain any resurgence of violence. An unbiased view would be that Mali is an African challenge for which a permanent, or at least long term, solution can only be found from within Africa. External intervention can at best only be a ‘band-aid solution’, as has been amply demonstrated in Afghanistan over a decade of gruelling conflict. The withdrawal of French forces is a mandatory priority and therefore the Malian Army has to be rebuilt into a cohesive force. This will take a great deal of resources to be poured in and France is morally responsible to provide the wherewithal to achieve this. This statement is based on two facts—one, that it is in the interest of France to withdraw from what could become another protracted conflict leading to certain strategic defeat irrespective of tactical brilliance and successes, and two, that the UN or the other African nations do not have the resources or the incentive to re-build the Malian Army. Victory in this intervention—defined as restoration of a democratic government in Mali, with the possibility of long term, assured stability—will perhaps restore France’s credibility in Africa as well as within the concert of nations internationally.
Differing Opinions
There are differing viewpoints regarding the intervention with its legitimacy itself being debated. By the letter of the law, it can be assumed to be legitimate since the French position is that they responded to the call for help from a legitimate head of state of a foreign nation. [I have started this analysis with the stated assumption that it was the ‘legitimate’ government of Mali that asked for French assistance.] However, this diplomatically impeccable reasoning can be questioned when the facts are examined more closely in the spirit of the law. The Malian crisis has unfolded as a series of lapses of governance, each one reducing the legitimacy of the person in power. The military coup that ousted President Toure did not achieve anything other than a more rapid collapse of law and order and a swift loss of northern Mali to the rebels. Subsequent to the coup, the leader Amadou Sanogo and exiled President Toure were both forced to resign by ECOWAS who installed President Traore as a nominated ‘provisory’ head of state of a transitional government. The Malians do not considered this president ‘legitimate’ since he was fostered on them by ECOWAS and not democratically elected. Since he is the one that called for French intervention, legitimacy of the request vis-à-vis the spirit of it can be questioned. [If this particular appeal for help by a nominated president is legitimate, then why is the appeal by the Syrian President for help from Iran and Russia considered ‘inappropriate’? Is this yet another case of selective application of the principles of justice and R2P (right to protect) by Western nations??]
Another point to note is that the intervention has not found a great deal of coverage in the international electronic and print media. In general the information that has been made available is that al-Qaeda-linked Islamic jihadists had started a brutal insurgency in Mali that necessitated a French-led intervention to restore the legitimate government to power. This reason for intervention sounds altruistic when taken at face value. However, cynical observers—including some ‘independent’ scholars—believe that the intervention is an attempt at recolonising the resource rich state, and that such an effort that could be the beginning of an attempt to engulf the rest of the region. Some analysts go even further and claim that the ultimate objective is to acquire geo-political control of the entire African continent. The fact that there is a sort of news ‘blackout’ regarding the details of the military operations, other than statements that it is progressing according to plan, combined with the reluctance of the western media to carry articles and analysis critical to the intervention, has further buttressed this belief—at least amongst people and groups critical of the proclivity of Western nations to intervene militarily in the developing post-colonial world.
There is no doubt that the geo-strategic and economic importance of Africa cannot be ignored. It is therefore a distinct possibility that Africa could become the new arena of geopolitical contest for competing world powers, as clearly enunciated in a well-researched article by Jennifer Giroux as far back as July 2008. In this article she went on to establish the relevance of Africa and the increased attention being paid to it by almost all global players. Another factor to be considered is that there is general agreement within the strategic analysis community that the dominant geopolitical challenges of this century will emanate from the attempts by nations to ensure uninterrupted and adequate energy, raw materials and water supplies. In this respect the virulent nationalism that characterised the colonial era is gradually returning to prominence. Under these circumstances it is not really that farfetched to think and believe that the French intervention has more ulterior motives than purely the defeat of Islamic extremism and securing a fragile state. The only way this hypothesis can be proved, or disproved, is by observing the actions of the Western alliance after the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism has been contained. It remains to be seen whether or not the stabilisation and rebuilding role will be handed over to AFISMA fully, which would be in some ways the litmus test of French intentions—the indication whether or not there is a hidden agenda!
Questions with no Answers
The French intervention in Mali raises a number of questions, most with no ‘correct’ answers to them.
There have been displays within Mali of full support for the intervening French forces—the French flag is flying inside Mali for the first time after it gained independence in 1960. At least for the time being, the battlefield defeat of Islamist forces and AQIM seems to have put a cover of respectability on the neo-colonial overtones of the intervention. But will this success and the acceptance of the its military’s presence reignite French colonial ambitions, at least in a paternalistic manner, towards its former colonies?
The bombing of Mali, even though conducted to ensure regime survival against rebel forces, will invariably be portrayed by the Islamists as a Christian assault on Islam. The context of this subversive propaganda can be supported by statistics: this is the eighth country in which the Western powers have bombed and killed Muslims in the past four years, the others being Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and the Philippines. In combination with the West’s support for some brutal autocracies in the Muslim world, this will provide an almost undeniable impetus for younger Muslims, with little prospects of improving their lot, to be converted to extremists with decidedly anti-Western agenda. Will the explanation of the concept of R2P be sufficient to stem this tide of anti-Western feelings that will be drummed up?
The concept of R2P itself is coming under increasing criticism because of the selective manner in which it has so far been implemented. The on-going tragedy in Syria does not seem to warrant direct international intervention. Further, the Saudi Arabian assistance to the anti-government forces in Syria, under the veneer of R2P although it has not been officially claimed as such, has a distinct sectarian slant to it. The R2P interventions conducted so far seem to be creating a vicious cycle: the intervention in Libya forced trained soldiers into Mali fomenting unrest that in turn needed further intervention. The fact that interventions have been initiated to ‘fight’ Islamic extremism is almost a definite indication that the next hot-spot will explode sooner rather than later. Does the concept of R2P retain its sanctity, and more importantly its legitimacy, when implemented selectively?
The French interlude in Mali will have consequences of far greater gravity than the mere rescue of a small and vulnerable state from Islamic forces and the restoration of stability. It may not be a template for future interventions, but it definitely sets the trend for former colonial nations to reinvent themselves in the garb of benign providers of assistance, especially in the resource rich areas of the world! It was the search and hunger for resources that underpinned the 19th century colonisation of what is today called the developing world; in the second decade of the 21st century resource hunger is still the driving factor in most ‘diplomatic’ dealings. Is the world coming full circle?     
                      
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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