Even if Northern Mali has been in the hands of armed Salafist forces since spring 2012, it has not yet morphed into another ‘Afghanistan’. The Salafist forces, may have taken the name of al-Qaeda, but they are of a different origin and nature than the one in Afghanistan. The danger is, however, that if the international response to Mali is too heavy-handed, it may create a dynamic that pushes the conflict into a similar pattern like the one in Afghanistan.
On January 11, 2013, French airplanes attacked strongholds of Islamist rebels in the north of Mali. Soon thereafter land troops followed in a quick sweeping raid, clearing most of rebel controlled areas. French forces, assisted by several thousand troops from Chad and Niger, thereby efficiently ended the offensive of Islamist rebels and gained nominal control over the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. This was, however, the easy part.
The Islamists have not completely lost the battle for northern Mali. They still have the capacity to resist and even strike inside towns formally under French control. As France is scaling down its number of troops from 4,000 to 1,000 by the end of the year, controlling this vast territory will prove even more difficult for the remaining French force and the joint ECOWAS/AU mission and the Malian army.
Causes of conflict
The current conflict is not new. Northern Mali is originally the homeland of the Tuareg, a people whose position in the Sahel was turned upside down by French colonialism. The Tuaregs who once controlled the inter-Saharan trade routes and saw themselves as ‘masters of the desert’ suddenly became minorities in several new states, and in Mali in particular, a minority ruled by the population they previously had viewed as inferior and historically had directed slave raids towards.
The Tuareg ‘problem’ is a Gordian knot, and ever since Mali became an independent state, the Tuaregs have recurrently rebelled. The first Tuareg rebellion took place in the early 1960s, the second in the early 1990s, and as the National Pact of 1992 failed to produce tangible results on the ground, a new rebellion emerged in 2006. This was relatively small until armed Tuaregs many of whom had lived in Libya for years started to return to Mali following the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Their arrival gave the rebellion new momentum and yet another Tuareg rebel movement was formed, the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Whereas Tuareg separatism previously had been a facade for other demands concerning power and positions, MNLA declared full independence of Azawad. The issue was no longer increased access to the spoils of the Malian state, but to break away from it.
However, what little that may have existed of Tuareg unity quickly disappeared and as MNLA fighters looted and plundered in the North and as the Malian army ran away, Salafist forces stepped in and effectively side-lined MNLA.
Consequences and responses
The Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) had been preparing for an intervention in Mali since the coup in March 2012, but their timeline was one of extensive consultations. ECOWAS wanted to pursue dual track diplomacy, aiming at bringing the Tuareg Islamist movement Ansar ed-Din into a negotiated settlement to separate them from the non-Malian AQIM and MÙJAO, facilitating a government partner in Bamako with a legitimate roadmap to democracy, and reforming the Malian army. As this is a time-consuming process, the ECOWAS intervention had been pushed forward in time to September 2013, meaning that ECOWAS was not the actor to whom Bamako could turn when Ansar and MUJAO started their south-bound offensive in January 2013.
The gut reaction of Bamako was to call the old colonial master in Paris as the last provider of regime security. With French forces still not in full control of the North there is little reason to believe that at least in the direct aftermath of French withdrawal the African PKO that is supposed to take over will be able to accomplish what the French forces could not.
The challenge facing the international community and the forthcoming African intervention is not only how to gain robust military control, but also how to navigate the political landscape of Mali. ECOWAS had started talks with Ansar in order to try to separate them from AQIM and MUJAO. The question is, however, how possible this diplomatic track is as French forces are on the ground and the crisis is caught-up in the discourse of the ‘war on terror’ following the In Amènas attack (in Algeria). What had up to this point been seen mainly as a Malian issue suddenly became an international concern drawing the attention of the U.S. and others to this area as the new front in the ‘war on terror’.
It may be seen as a positive move that a group – the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA) – broke away from Ansar after the In Aménas attack, claiming that they were denouncing terrorism and were ready for dialogue. However, not only, is it uncertain how large this group is, but questions can also be asked concerning the influence of its leader. Considerable social engineering is therefore needed in order to glue together a Tuareg coalition that can be a credible partner for dialogue with the Malian state and the international community.
This is, however, not only a challenge in North Mali; it is just as much the case in Bamako. The current government is at the very best a caretaker government, fragmented between different civilian and military groups. It lacks legitimacy and credibility and even if a new roadmap concerning the return to democratic rule has sat the date for elections to July 31, 2013, the legitimacy of this process is still questioned by several political groups in the country.
Adding to this is the issue of the Malian army having a problem that ranges much deeper than simply the lack of training and equipment that the EU Mission to Mali (EUTM) suggests. The army suffers from internal fragmentation and the lack of a moral compass to underwrite its military operations. It is unfortunately already clear that the Malian army has conducted several human rights abuses in areas it has recaptured from the rebels and technical training will not prevent this in the future.
This means that right now, France and the international community have taken on board partners in Mali (the government and the army) that lack both legitimacy and implementing capacity. This is a serious problem that must be solved if the international community is to find a sustainable solution to the crisis.
Looking at neighbouring Niger and the role of the Tuaregs there one should note that Niger is not Mali. The Tuaregs are better integrated and so far there is little suggesting that there is any immediate danger that the peace agreement from 2009 between the state and the Niger Justice Movement will fall apart. Contrary to the case of Mali, the Nigerien state was present at the border and disarmed Tuareg returnees from Libya. Niger’s new role as a strategic partner for the U.S. (e.g. as a base for American drones) should strengthen the regime in power, but may also make the country a possible target for attacks from AQIM and MUJAO.
Some of the same could be said about Chad. President Deby himself has clearly enhanced his position as it will be difficult for Western donors to criticise his bad track record on governance and human rights (also in the Central African Republic) after he sent troops to Northern Mali. However, the democratic deficits and bad governance that characterise his rule also means that the Islamist rebels could attempt to use this to launch a new front within Chad. Thus, pointing to the obvious fact that the coalition that has been put together to fight the Islamist rebels contain in its midst partners that could come to constitute a problem later down the road.
The Islamist Boko Haram insuregncy in Northern Nigeria is also of concern in this regard. However, even if Boko Haram may have used Northern Mali and Gao in particular as rear bases, there is still little if any evidence to suggest that Boko Haram is in the process of regionalising its insurgency. Its main focus is still Northern Nigeria and local grievances. Thus, even if the possibility of spill-over effects should be taken seriously they should not be over-rated either. The Sahel is not a warzone of a coherent Islamist rebellion, but still more a situation of different insurgencies with local grievances, yet loosely allied through a combination of ideology and pragmatic self-help concerns.
It is good that African countries will play a leading role in the international intervention as this may provide a platform for solutions that avoids being caught up in ‘war on terror’ rhetoric. However, the composition of the ECOWAS troops that will have to carry much of the burden as France start downscaling has certain drawbacks. Nigeria will be the chief contributor of troops to the PKO. Nigeria’s military leadership qualities has increased since the 1990s, but they will be operating in what for them is an unknown terrain with a climate and topography that they have little if any experience with. This is somewhat balanced by the soldiers from Chad and Niger who has extensive battle experience from this type of terrain. However as these troops has had little exposure to international PKO’s there is a danger that they do not necessarily have the protection of civilians as one of the core objectives.
The experience from previous attempts at peacekeeping interventions in West Africa is also mixed. As the history of such operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone shows they created some level of stability, but they also became a participant not only in the conflict, but also in the conflict economy. Thus, even if the quality of the West African troops that will constitute the core of mission has improved, there is still clearly a danger that some unwanted by-products of peacekeeping as those that came about in Liberia and Sierra Leone will also materialise in the Malian intervention.
Thus, if the international community is not taking great care concerning such by-products there is a risk that we may repeat several of the early mistakes made in Afghanistan that will have the same negative effects on state stability as we currently see in that country.
This text is originally published in the Finnish Journal of Foreign Affairs 2/2013.
Morten Böås is Senior Researcher at Fafo/Ais in Oslo.