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.
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Robert Gates’ retirement speech expressed frustration over European NATO spending last year. Europe must co-ordinate its defense spending to achieve more.
NATO is at a crossroads. Just as the conflict in Afghanistan illustrated how NATO has remained a defensive pact since its conception, the conflict in Libya has displayed it cannot be an institution concerned with security or humanitarian operations unless Europe is willing to cover more of the bill. Robert Gates’ retirement speech highlighted America’s frustration over Europe’s lack of military support for NATO’s intervention in Libya. His successor, Leon Panetta, has been quick to voice this dissatisfaction as well.
Article 5 of the NATO treaty calls for intervention by member states when one member state is attacked. Article 5 is a fundamental principle of NATO, since NATO is concerned with national survival. Member state survival is the reason NATO was originally signed – to prevent Russia from invading European NATO states. British general and author Rupert Smith defines a defence policy as one that is concerned with the “absolute imperatives of the survival of the state.” To invade Afghanistan, NATO invoked Article 5, but to invade Libya it did not – there was no threat to the survival of a NATO member state because no member state was attacked. Therefore NATO’s intervention in Libya is not a defensive operation.
The Libya operation can be at most a geopolitical security goal. Smith defines security policy as one defined by “lesser imperatives.” Political science professor Jean-Yves Haine argues the EU’s foreign strategy “aims to promote the emergence of a ‘ring of friends’ across Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.” Therefore an intervention in Libya is in the interest of Europe – overthrowing Gaddafi, a tyrannical dictator of a unstable country, certainly promotes a ‘ring of friends.’
The UN’s 2005 principle the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) calls for “intervention for human protection purposes.” The UN’s Security Council imposed a no fly zone over Libya by adopting Article 1973; authorizing NATO “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under attack in the country.” Therefore Libya can be justified as a humanitarian intervention. However, no NATO member state’s survival was at stake; therefore no NATO member state is obliged to act, however justifiable intervention may be.
According to Gates Libya is “an operation where Europeans are taking the lead with American support.” Intervention in Libya is a security goal for Europe; it wants to promote a ‘ring of friends’ across the Mediterranean. This mission however has thus far relied on American firepower, supplied by the American taxpayer. Gates points out: “the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.” Leon Panetta echoed his concerns, re-affirming shortages in intelligence and surveillance capabilities, refuelling tankers, and supplies – all gaps the US had to fill.
American frustration is understandable; Britain and France pushed for a security – not a defence – operation in Libya. The operation is a humanitarian mission located in Europe’s sphere of influence and is in the interest of Europe’s geopolitical security policy, yet many NATO members are “unwilling or unable” to share the “risks and costs”(Gates). This comes at a time when both American and European governments are cutting their defence budgets. But for Europe to improve its military capabilities an increase in defence spending is not needed – co-ordination in spending is.
According to NATO’s press releases, Europe’s armies account for nearly 2 million military personnel – 500,000 more than the American army. This European advantage is useless. Haine points out that Europe can only deploy 10 percent of these troops. The US can supply far better technology because it spends it 750 million dollar budget on military capabilities rather than simply large armies. Europe’s 300 million dollar combined defence budget is almost half that of the US’s, thus budget size is not the issue. To improve capabilities “the Union must improve spending”(Haine). Panetta’s October speech argued that with cuts looming, nations must co-ordinate cuts and pool their capabilities. Haine argues improved communication, intelligence, surveillance, as well as research and development are all paramount and can be achieved by co-ordinating spending. Cameron and Sarkozy have begun to realise this; to cut costs British and French forces have begun to co-operate, agreeing to maintain a single aircraft carrier between them and co-ordinate research and development. More of this is needed.
The US is perfectly willing to intervene in Libya because of the UN’s R2P. If Libyan intervention is in Europe’s geopolitical security interest, why do the EU’s member states put this assistance in jeopardy by not co-operating further on defence to improve its shortfalls? Militaries are essential for a nation’s sovereignty, perhaps the EU member states are clinging to this as a symbol of independence. But after a single market and even movements towards a common foreign policy, a co-ordinated defence hardly seems unreasonable, especially since co-operation amongst the member states’ defence departments does not mean the end of national sovereignty. Tony Blair realised this in 2000 when he pushed for a “superpower, not a superstate.” Furthermore, scholar Ingo Peters points to failures such as Yugoslavia (a similar operation to that of Libya today) as examples of Europe’s “inability to act independently of the United States.” In this sense, an integrated defence, focusing on co-operation and co-ordination amongst states, can only make Europe more autonomous when handling its own regional security; without assistance from the US it can truly be independent.
If the Europeans want to enjoy the benefits of using NATO as a tool beyond its original purpose – a defensive alliance – they must be willing to pay a decent share of the costs. The costs to EU member states will be political rather than monetary. European defence budgets are not small when combined, it is smarter spending and co-ordination that is needed. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 declared that the “Union shall define and implement a common foreign and security policy . . . which might in time lead to a common defence.” The time for a common defence has come, or else essential humanitarian operations like those of Libya may become impossible in this time of austerity.
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