If Washington continues to avoid direct engagement in Mali there remains a possibility that Mali’s instability could spread throughout West Africa and to the greater region. There is some evidence of this in Nigeria with the growth of Boko Haram. Mali’s internal strife not only represents a threat to Mali and its neighbors but the fragile state of intra-African politics. The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are engaged in Mali with ECOWAS dedicated to the restoration of democracy and the AU committed to preserving the territorial integrity of Mali. So far the Obama administration has not made any official commitments regarding direct military relief in Mali aside from limited support in the form of ferrying supplies to the region. Adding further urgency, various insurgency groups and Islamists are joining forces in some instances.
Organizations such as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Polisario Front, Ansar Dine, and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) represent a network of terrorist and separatist movements whose combined actions characterize a growing threat to the economic and political development of the region. There are links that bind these movements together like ideology, tribalism, ethnicity, politics, and religion. Mali’s fate is just another piece of the puzzle in resolving issues in West Africa but Washington refuses to address the dynamic relationship between these guerilla conflicts. Reaffirming Mali’s progress towards democracy is the first step that U.S. foreign policy needs to take to resolve Mali’s and the region’s chaos.
Mali is unique in the region because of its progressive democratic institutions. These political institutions are not perfect but they afford Malians some form of civilian oversight that allows the population the ability to address social, economic, and political concerns. However, when the Touré administration failed to resolve the 2012 Tuareg Rebellion most of Northern Mali was lost to the rebels. The military blamed this setback on Toure’s regime and a coup forced him from power.
The new government is not faring any better in dealing with the subsequent chaos. The NMLA along with its Islamist allies, Ansar Dine and MOJWA, took this opportunity to impose their authority over the territory they controlled. The conflict began as a struggle for Tuareg independence but the NMLA has found itself sidelined by its Islamist partners. Ansar Dine, MOJWA, and AQIM saw this as the perfect chance to exploit this clash. These Islamist groups have effectively overshadowed NMLA as the main combatants. Mali has proven itself incapable of handling this crisis without foreign assistance.
Besides progressive democratic institutions, the other deciding factor in Mali’s government is the armed forces. When the combination of Islamic extremism and ethnic tension threaten the existence of these military institutions, the army struck back at the government’s civilian authorities. The important correlation here is that Mali’s previous civilian administrations were able to keep these hazardous influences in check. The 1992 Tuareg Rebellion was largely subdued by the progressive transition towards democracy and the integration of Tuareg militias into the regular armed services. When the military overthrew Mali’s civilian authority and suspended the constitution it eliminated the only political entity capable of providing a negotiated settlement designed to ease ethnic tensions with the Tuaregs. Islamist organizations exploited this weakness transforming Mali into a battlefield of despair in little under a year.
At first the international community did not respond. Mali was expelled from ECOWAS because of the military coup in March 2012. As the conflict intensified, the AU was able to receive a UN mandate to expel the rebels from Northern Mali in December 2012. However, the AU lacks the necessary resources and infrastructure. It fell upon the French to coordinate a military intervention at the request of Mali’s government. France’s objectives are to root out the various militia groups from their strongholds and eliminate their operational infrastructure while preparing the AU and Malian forces to take over combat roles. Malian and AU troops are working with France to break the insurgents hold in Northern Mali.
This represents the first phase of the conflict, which happens to be the easiest step. Amidst this small victory, the foundations for a new conflict are being laid. In combating any insurgency, there exists a strong tendency for the even the best trained and experienced troops to engage in armed reprisals, summary executions, and other atrocities. These are the functional realities in any counter-insurgency operation. The truth is that these actions have proven counterproductive in the majority of modern conflicts as in the Afghan and Iraq Wars. This effectively furthers the insurgents’ political objectives of winning support for their cause by vilifying their enemies. If Mali’s government continues to rely on military means alone to pursue its agenda then it will lose the confidence of Malians and the international community. The deciding factor of this conflict revolves around clearly identifying when the military operation ends and when the political mission begins.
A successful peacekeeping operation in Mali requires a level of foreign commitment spanning years not months. This presents a dilemma because the AU and France are unlikely to take up this prolonged responsibility for various reasons. For France, national debt woes plus the public’s dismay for protracted military engagement means that the French are working under a fixed schedule, which François Hollande has publicly announced. The AU does not possess the financial resources, logistical capacity, or experience necessary to maintain a sustained effort.
Considering the complexities of intra-African relations and the multitude of insurgencies occurring in West Africa the ability of establishing a multi-national AU force will be difficult. A peacekeeping force in Mali will require a coordinated effort designed to protect and promote the development of human rights including those of the Tuaregs. This requires a plan to be implemented in a timely manner, including the overall objective of restoring Mali’s democratic institutions.
Since there exists such a limited timeframe several things need to occur. First, the French request for the AU’s mission to be supplemented with a UN force needs to be considered. However, if this fails to garner enough international support then a multi-national force needs to be assembled by the US and the EU. Second, the present level of international support ranging from foodstuffs to combat equipment may suffice but Mali requires further international assistance for the creation of specific political and economic institutions to facilitate the long-term development of Mali. Third, the AU needs to take this as an opportunity to develop permanent institutions and infrastructure necessary to act independently in response to future crises. Finally, Mali’s government needs to have a transition of power to civilian authorities that immediately addresses the issues regarding the causes of the Tuareg Rebellion.
The major concern for the United States is that a radical shift in its foreign policy is necessary to accomplish these objectives. The political climate in Washington is focused on domestic economic and social issues that seem to override foreign policy concerns. The adherent nature of foreign policy means that representative politicians are more worried about issues affecting their constituents than obscure foreign hostilities. The insurgency in Mali and other areas throughout the region require the establishment of a quasi-permanent military/political mission in the heart of the Sahara that is more intensive in its actions than the current remedy of no fly zones, economic sanctions, and training exercises. It involves a command presence on the ground that assists local authorities in resolving political, economic, and social issues. This commitment’s size and cost is difficult to forecast because of the constantly evolving nature of the conflict meaning that an established US presence in the region is going to entail a flexible operation.
France acted in Mali because the conflict posed a threat to Western interests in North and West Africa and incidentally in the Middle East as well. One of the first things France encountered is rebel troops armed with sophisticated weaponry, likely taken from Libya after Qaddafi’s fall. This reveals that AQIM, Ansar Dine, NMLA, and MOJWA are in contact with a web of nationalist and extremist groups that have easy access to advanced weapons and ample resources. Once the rebels are routed from Northern Mali, they will take their weapons, supplies, personnel, and more importantly their training elsewhere to continue the conflict. The key to being a true revolutionary revolves around the concept of continuing the struggle at all costs causing it adherents to migrate from conflict to conflict spreading their ideology. This remains especially true for Islamists.
France has taken the lead in Mali by pursuing an assertive foreign policy. However, Hollande’s administration is committed to its plan of withdrawing French combat troops within the next few months. Already, insurgents’ attacks are rising in areas that France has withdrawn from and Malian troops are committing violent atrocities against Arab and Tuareg populations. Without an experienced partner, Malian and AU forces are unlikely to maintain the discipline and cohesion necessary to accomplish the mission. In order for the international community to sustain the endeavor another power is going to have to step in to lead this effort. It is necessary for Washington to step up to this role in order to continue the operation. The United States is one of the only countries that possess all the essential resources to fill this position. America’s current amount of support is measurable in intelligence, transportation and drone surveillance.
Washington will need to pressure France to extend its combat commitment in Mali because the French have established a respectable relationship with the Malian populace. At the same time, Washington needs to commit some ground troops to act as advisors and combat operation supervisors. In addition, America can use its extensive counter-terrorism apparatus to track down the elements of AQIM, MOWGA, and Ansar Dine that have fled and neutralize their support and training systems. Extensive diplomatic pressure needs to be applied to Algeria for it to sever its ties to the AQIM and affiliated parties that support the Polisario movement in Western Sahara because it serves as another conduit for revolutionaries. The greater issue that Washington needs to consider is isolating the various insurgencies in West Africa because these conflicts feed off one another. If Washington can foster a closer relationship with ECOWAS and the African Union then the revolving door of insurgents can be closed.
The final issue to address is the restoration of democratic institutions that are needed to return political stability to Mali. This will require Washington to establish a diplomatic mission in Mali that promotes the development of a functional democratic society with special interests regarding the issues of separatism among the minority groups.
If the Tuareg issue remains ignored then in a few years there will be another rebellion. The military’s reprisals against the Tuareg population are establishing the seeds of this future conflict. In order to reverse the trend of Tuareg’ alienation an established peacekeeping force needs to coordinate its counterinsurgency policies with the mentality of developing respectable political institutions. This involves pressuring Mali’s central government to present an effective plan to address the original concerns of the NMLA and providing the Tuaregs a civil means to address their desires for greater political autonomy. This will involve finding an economic solution to the massive unemployment of young adults in Mali. If a functioning peacekeeping operation fails to be organized or the use of military force is prolonged then this conflict will turn into a protracted civil war that will breed further conflict throughout North and West Africa.
In the end, if Washington takes the lead in coordinating international support for a peacekeeping and diplomatic mission in Mali a conflict along the lines of the Algerian Civil War 1992-2002 that claimed upwards of 150,000 lives and displaced millions can be avoided.