Mali’s North has been seized by radicals, among them a branch of al-Qaeda. An African-led Western-supported intervention is on its way. Although this is a promising development, ensuring success requires preparing for the worst.
Mali democratized in 1991. By March 1991 massive protests in Bamako, the country’s capital, culminated in the deaths of at most hundreds of protesters. Following mass riots, on 26 March 1991, Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré announced he had arrested the dictator President/General Massao Traoré. The revolution occurred because the army refused to kill its people. Touré would act as an interim president until an elected government received power in 1992. Touré would later enter political life, and be democratically elected in 2002. He successfully won re-election in 2007.
Examining Mali’s recent history, it is easy to make comparisons to the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt. Although the situations in Tunisia and Egypt are still developing, as of yet all three had relatively peaceful democratic transitions, and in all three the army played a critical role in accomplishing this. It is thus with great tragedy that Mali’s stability has fallen into disarray and great irony that the Libyan intervention inadvertently led to this outcome.
The conflict’s background
In March Mali’s military, frustrated by the inability of the government to suppress a continuing Tuareg rebel insurgency in the country’s North, staged a coup ousting President Touré. The Tuareg people are akin to the Berbers of North Africa. Colonel Qaddafi employed many Malian Tuaregs in the Libyan army, once he was overthrown these trained militants returned to Mali. The fall of Qaddafi also gave these rebels access to arms. Therefore the Libyan revolution paved the way for Tuareg rebels to seize the strategic cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao, effectively giving them control of Northern Mali. Soon after the North of Mali was lost, the Tuaregs in turn lost power to radical jihadist groups including a branch of al-Qaeda know as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Mali has since fallen into complete disarray. The new president, Diacounda Traore was beaten and left for dead in his office by a mob on May 21, he was hospitalized in Paris and remains there. On 10 December the army arrested Prime Minister Cheik Modibo Diarra and forced him to resign for allowing foreign armies to operate in the country. Not only is Mali’s North been conquered by jihadists, its South is also extremely unstable. Mali risks becoming a failed state.
The radicals now controlling Mali’s North are brutal rulers. They have banned music, destroyed historical monuments, and instituted sharia law. Reports of a couple being stoned to death for having premarital sex are not hard to believe. Unfortunately this or the fact that Mali may become a failed state does not mean the West will intervene to reinstate Mali’s democratic government. Situations such as those of the Central African Republic, Somalia, Sudan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda among others were and are equally or more brutal, however no or limited Western involvement occurred. That is because these situations did not present a security concern to the West – a harsh fact, but thus is the reality of the international state system.
The security concern Mali presents
However the West is concerned by the situation in Mali, and that is because it does present a security threat. The AQIM now controls a massive swathe of territory covering more than 300,000 square miles. Terrorist networks like al-Qaeda thrive in power-vacuums. This area comes complete with airports, military bases, armories and training camps. It is a perfect location in which to support other terrorist organizations, to attack American interests in Africa, and possibly to launch terrorist attacks aimed at Europe and/or North America. Mali could become similar to the ‘terrorist haven’ of pre- 2001 Afghanistan.
The fact that Mali presents a security threat to the West has dawned on Western leaders. However because or Iraq’s legacy, Washington above all else would detest being involved in another war abroad. A center pillar of the Obama administration’s foreign policy is to avoid foreign conflict. Therefore a NATO intervention, for the time-being at least, is unlikely.
Instead, on 21 December, a UN resolution drafted by France (Mali’s former colonial power) passed unanimously allowing for an African-led Western-supported intervention. The Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) has readied 3,300 troops, but an operation is not expected before September 2013. The military force will be known as the African-led International Support Mission in Mali, and will be backed by Western (mostly American and French) logistics, airpower, intelligence, surveillance (including drones), and possibly special forces.
The West must be prepared for the worst
While the planned operation by ECOWAS forces is promising, it may not be enough. AQIM still has several months to entrench itself in Mali’s North, and although it is likely Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao will be liberated in due course, eradiating al-Qaeda from the Saharan desert may be more difficult. I would not say the intervention’s failure is probable, but it is certainly possible. Thus it is essential that should this African-led mission fail, NATO is prepared to do more. America must be willing to engage in a foreign intervention should the situation continue to deteriorate. Preparing for the worst is critical for success. Otherwise Mali risks becoming a failed state. Al-Qaeda would persist and the democratizing force of the Arab Spring would be countered by the collapse of Mali’s elected government.
Balir, David. “Mali: how the West cleared the way for al-Qaeda’s African march,” The Telegraph. 10 July 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/mali/9390601/ Mali-how-the-West-cleared-the-way-for-al-Qaedas-African-march.html
“Can the jihadists be stopped?” The Economist. 10 November 2012.
Schneidman, Witney and Brandon Routman. “Stopping Mali from Becoming Somalia,” Foreign Policy. 24 July 2012.
“Terror in the Sahara.” The Economist. 10 November 2012.
“The 400 Coups.” The Economist. 15 December 2012.
http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21568410-malis- government-ousted-again-400- coups?zid=304&ah=e5690753dc78ce91909083042ad12e30
“UN backs Mali intervention force to oust rebels.” BBC News. 21 December 2012.