The latest conflict in Mali’s troubled history is coming to a breakpoint, or at least some kind of a turning point. While in the north of the country the Tuareg rebels continue their recently accelerated fighting against the Islamists of MUJAO, AQMI and the new-found Malian Ansar al-Sharia, in New York the United Nations’ Security Council is still weighing the details and options of an ECOWAS led military intervention.
After been given 45 days to come up with a detailed plan for an invention, ECOWAS is now waiting whether the UN will eventually give a mandate to an operation that has already the backing of the European Union. The 2012 Nobel Peace Prize winner has promised, at least with bilateral agreements through France and Germany, to assist in training the Malian armed forces and possible logistic assistance for an African lead military operation. The US and some of the other countries don’t seem to be too convinced about the plan, at least not on first sight.
Regardless of a possible UN mandate, a military intervention would face numerous challenges due to the multi-layered nature of the conflict itself. First of all, defining the forces to beat with an intervention poses a problem. Should the action target all militant forces in the area, supporting the now largely defunct Malian army in the fight? Or should the MNLA and Ansar al-Din be involved in the fight against the insurgents of the radical MUJAO and AQMI alongside ECOWAS and Malian forces? After all the Tuaregs’ MNLA and “home-grown” Islamist movement Ansar al-Din are the ones who lately have been showing signs of possible solution through negotiations. They, MNLA especially, have priceless knowledge of the terrain and its features in the northern parts of the country. That would be an asset to any military force fighting in the area. But would their involvement be beneficial for the future, for a new more comprehensive approach to Mali’s political, social and cultural problems? The Malian interim government in Bamako has said that everything is up for negotiations, except that the future will be a one united Mali, with one Armed Force and that the judicial system of the country will be based on laws of a republic, secular one compared to one driven by strict Sharia law.
From a purely military point of view, what can realistically be achieved with the amount of boots on the ground that the ECOWAS plan suggests? A force of some 3300 strong will be stretched at best in an area the size of northern Mali, especially considering the harshness of the terrain and the lack of support from basic infrastructure.
Regardless of the present enthusiasm surrounding the possible ECOWAS operation, it is not supported without reservation by everyone. Algeria for one fears the influx of Islamist fighters back north to its territory should a military intervention go ahead. Recently Algeria agreed to tighten its borders should the need arrive. Not an easy task to fulfill remembering the difficulties in controlling the insurgents’ movement going the other way.
There are also reservations towards any outside military intervention inside Mali. The Armed Forces, even though having faced humiliation in the north, still has mixed feelings considering the ECOWAS plan. The latest twists and turns, arrest of the prime minister and his subsequent resignation as well as that of the government, only serve to deepen the unrest in the country. Especially as this was a change forced by captain Amadou Sanogo and his troops. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has been in favour of an intervention, but has stressed the humanitarian risks involved. A UN report on the risks of the situation has been said to envisage large amounts of refugees still to come in all its four different possible outcome scenarios. These scenarios are said to range from sustain the status quo in the country to an Islamist counter-attack towards the southern part of Mali, including Bamako.
Whatever the UN Security council decides concerning a military intervention, the conflict is and will be far from over. The possible limited achievements of beating the insurgency by military force need to be accompanied by a much wider and in-depth operation of installing legal governance in the now invaded regions, tackling the poverty which drives the young into joining the armed rebel groups in hope for a future of at least some kind and ensuring development for the area as a whole. ECOWAS, the other neighbouring countries as well as the European Union all have a part to play in supporting the Malians to set the ball rolling. Negotiations are on-going on different levels and at different forums. The plight of the Malian people continues in the meantime.
Olli Teirilä (captain) is a lecturer at the Finnish National Defence University’s Department of Strategic and Defence Studies. His areas of interest include African security issues.