Two renowned Africa experts called for an immediate international intervention in Mali Wednesday at a roundtable discussion in Ottawa.
Robert Fowler, former deputy minister of national defense and ambassador to the United Nations, and Robert Rotberg, of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, addressed the intensifying situation in Mali at Carleton University Wednesday night. The event, hosted by the Canadian International Council and Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, was titled “Could Mali be the Next Afghanistan?”
The talk came one day after Mali’s Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was forced to resign, following his arrest by military leaders for trying to leave the country for France. Diarra’s resignation is the latest development in Mali’s struggle to maintain control of the country.
The landlocked West African state was once considered one of Africa’s most stable countries. But in early 2012, state control over the north began to crumble and in a March coup, the Islamist militant Tuareg rebels seized northern Mali and ousted the sitting president. As the rebels continue to control the north, the international community fears an ever-growing al-Qaeda presence in the region may spread across the Sahel region of At Wednesday’s event, Fowler expressed grave concern about the presence of the jihadists with links to al-Qaeda in the North. In 2008, Fowler, UN Special Envoy to Niger at the time, and fellow Canadian diplomat Louis Guay were kidnapped for 130 days by the Islamic Maghreb, a Mali-based al-Qaeda group.
Fowler said that his captors, like most members of al-Qaeda in the region, were incredibly dedicated to spreading jihadist rule across the Sahel region. Based on his experience with his captors, Fowler provided some advice for approaching the al-Qaeda presence in Northern Mali.
“This is about going and damaging, seriously degrading al-Qaeda. Not eliminating them, that’s not possible,” he said.
Fowler called for a two-pronged approach to an international intervention in Mali: diminish al-Qaeda as much as possible, while training the Malian army to prevent another coup. At that point, the Canadian government can “resume its $100-million-a-year aid program to Mali,” while European and American donors do the same. Canada has suspended bilateral aid to Mali in light of the events in the past ten months.
Fowler said an international intervention in Mali is beneficial for a number of reasons.
“Strategic reasons. They are al-Qaeda,” said Fowler. “They will do their very best to turn the upper half of African into a seething cauldron.”
Economically speaking, Fowler said developed countries have invested upwards of $150 billion in the Sahel region, which includes Mali, and it does not make sense to give up on the country now.
“It strikes me that if you’re talking around $150 billion dollars, it would make sense to protect it and therefore to ensure that the al-Qaeda gang cannot do what they want.”
Finally, Fowler said Canada has some “great friends” in the Sahel region, all of which fear al-Qaeda, and Western nations owe those countries their support.
Rotberg agreed with Fowler that an intervention is needed sooner rather than later.
“As every day goes by…we miss the chance of both defeating al-Qaeda but also saving northern Malians and, as Bob (Fowler) has said, possibly neighbouring countries from the search for paradise,” Rotberg explained.
Rotberg said that if the international community reacts immediately, only a “small military operation” will be needed at this point. While the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed to organize a coordinated military expedition to reclaim the north, the United Nations Security Council has yet to call for a military intervention.
Rotberg partly blamed neighbouring Algeria’s refusal to intervene in Northern Mali for the lack of interest from the UN and France, which has also hinted at an intervention in the country it once had colonial power over. He said that if Algeria continues to hold back, other countries will as well.
“The real question is why Algeria, which could deal with this insurgency in a moment, is not,” he said. “The slowness of France and the UN to get engaged is answered by the Algerian question.”
When it came down to the ultimate question of the night — could Mali be the next Afghanistan — Rotberg strongly argued “no.” He said the jihadists in the north are not much more than a “local gang” compared to the widespread Taliban warlords in Afghanistan. Rotberg also credited Mali’s legitimate government, which does not remotely compare to Afghanistan’s corrupt and disjointed system.
Both speakers agreed that while Mali may not be the next Afghanistan, the African country deserves the protection of Canada and the world. But an intervention must happen while the diminishment of al-Qaeda is still a manageable task for a modest military force.
“The longer we fail to act, the harder it is. They (al-Qaeda) can get more entrenched, their supply chain is perfected, they gain funding from outside sources,” said Rotberg. “It’s clear to me we have a good title for this talk, but Mali is not the next Afghanistan.”