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Mali: a Coffee House briefing

12 January 2013

11:17 PM

12 January 2013

11:17 PM

David Cameron has today confirmed that UK troops will offer logistical “assistance” to those of France now fighting Islamic insurgents in northern Mali.  The below briefing outlines developments there so far.

1) The Basics

·       Mali is a landlocked West African former colony of France, with a population of 14.5 million, half of whom live below the poverty line. Some 6,000 French citizens live there. The capital is Bamako.

·       In March last year, a military coup toppled the democratically-elected leader, President Touré. The already weak central government lost control of the North of the country, which fell under the control of Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist group who have imposed Shari’ah law, and Tuareg rebels, who have long felt marginalised by the Malian government.

·   This is linked to Libya. After Gaddafi fell, the Tuareg armed fighters he had been using returned to Mali. This led to a separatist war and formation of the unrecognized separatist Islamist state of “Azawad”, occupying a third of Mali’s territory.  While there is not (yet) evidence that Islamists there will use this base to plan foreign attacks, the West is nervy – especially at signs that the insurgents aim to sezie the whole country.

·       A number of atrocities so far have been reported so far, including the public stoning of a couple who were accused of having children outside marriage. Some 500,000 have reportedly fled the north since the Islamist takeover, 270,000 of them to neighboring countries. Ansar Dine has more recently begun to militarily move south, prompting UN concern and the French military intervention.

2) The UN authorises force

·       Last month the UN Security Council unanimously voted to give the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) an initial one-year mandate. The 3,300-troop force was tasked with helping recover the north of the country from “terrorist, extremist and armed groups.”

3) The French Position

·       Last July, Hollande’s Foreign Minister, Lauren Fabius, said, ‘In the north, at one moment or another there will probably be the use of force.’ This carried with it the suggestion that France would support a foreign intervention in Mali. Fabius later clarified that Paris could not lead this intervention, because its colonial past would complicate matters, but said that France and the US were prepared to provide support and training for regional forces.

·       Fabius has talked of avoiding a ‘Malian Afghanistan’, where Western forces get bogged down in a quagmire of post-conflict nation-building. African leaders have been more inclined to talk of a ‘Malian Somalia’, where the government collapses and warlords dominate.

·       Yesterday, Hollande announced a surprise French intervention: Operation Serval. He didn’t specify the number of troops or their mission. But the French bombers (stationed in Chad) struck on Friday, in what is understood to be a response to the jihadis marching south and overrunning the village of Konna. Hollande has said his military will stay “last as long as necessary” to help Mali’s government recover. “At stake is the very existence of the Malian state,” he said. He has stressed that France is working under the remit of a UN resolution authorising ECOWAS action

 3) America and others

·       Hollande has asked Obama to speed up the US contribution by sending drones to improve surveillance over northern Mali. The French have only a couple of drones. The US Air Force is also expected to help with refueling aircraft.

·       Since last  July, the US has made public that it is considering either targeted strikes or special operations troops to help Mali fight the Islamists. Pentagon officials (including Michael Sheehan, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for special operations) have talked about the ‘looming threat’ that it posed by allow militant groups friendly to al-Qaeda to sit comfortably in Mali. US drone strikes in Somalia make this threat more credible. Election season and a war-weary public make it less so.

·       The EU has backed military assistance that can be provided by ECOWAS, but has not officially pledged support or training, as France and the US have.

·       In June, the Foreign Office said Britain supports a diplomatic solution and military intervention as a last resort. David Cameron, at the press conference where Hollande pledged French support, was silent about the British position.

4) What could an intervention look like?

·       The UN authorised a ECOWAS force of 3,300, likely to be led by Nigeria with other troops from Niger and Senegal. It is likely to have three objectives: 1) reorganise the Malian army; 2) secure the transitional government in Bamako; and 3) retake the north from Ansar Dine.

·       ECOWAS has form, having previously intervened in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The idea would be African troops on the ground, with Western air support.

5) Chances of success?

·       The International Crisis Group has called by ECOWAS not to intervene, but instead to continue to support diplomatic efforts to bring stability to the country. It has argued that military intervention ignores a long history of ethnic division in the country (between north and south) and would prompt violent reprisal attacks in West Africa.

·        John Campbell, a  Council on Foreign Relations commentator,  largely concurs: a political settlement that satisfies the Tuareg people and Ansar Dine is necessary. He goes further to argue that even with foreign assistance, imposing order on the deserts of the north will be near impossible. A strong force could potentially take back some of the towns, such as Timbuktu and Gao, but not the vast desert.

·       Paul Rogers of the Oxford Research Group stresses the broader implications of an intervention and urges caution. Foreign interference, or the perception of it, may play into the narratives of groups such as Boko Haram, operating in Nigeria. He, too, argues for a diplomatic settlement.

·       Witney Schneidman and Brandon Routman of the Brookings Institute have argued on Foreign Policy that US needs to deny  al-Qaeda safe haven, so NATO (ie, America) should support ECOWAS’ efforts in Mali.

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