The coming war in Mali

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Dec 5th, 2012
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YOU probably haven’t given much thought to the problems in Mali, but UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has, and his advice on military intervention in the West African country could be summed up in two words: forget it.

Although, being a diplomat, he used a great many more words.

Mali’s 14 million people are almost all Muslims, but there is a deep ethnic divide between the black African majority in the southern half and the Tuaregs – only 10 per cent of the population – who dominate the desert northern half.

Last March, a military coup in capital Bamako distracted the army long enough for Tuareg separatists to seize control of the north. They had been in business for many years, but an influx of weapons and fighters from Libya after the fall of the Gadaffi regime gave them a new impetus.

Having driven troops out of the north and declared the independent nation of Azawad, however, they were rapidly pushed aside by Islamic extremists who declared a jihad against practically everybody.

A military coup in a West African nation, even if the government lost control of half the country to separatists, would normally be of interest only to other West African states. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) might back military intervention to re-unite the country, or might not, but the rest of the world would ignore it.

Not this time.

What set alarms bells ringing in the US and Europe was the fact that Al Qaeda in the Maghreb is a major force in the alliance of Islamist fundamentalists that now controls northern Mali.

The mere mention of Al Qaeda sets Western governments salivating like Pavlov’s dogs, and the issue of reconquering northern Mali suddenly got onto the international agenda.

Western countries have been pushing for a UN Security Council resolution authorising military action against the rebels for months. In October, they got their way. The resolution gave regional leaders 45 days to provide plans for an international military intervention to remove the rebels in northern Mali, and the US recently war was now “inevitable”.

Ban sends his letter to the Council, condemning the rush to military action: “I am profoundly aware that if a military intervention in the north is not well conceived and executed, it could worsen an already fragile humanitarian situation and also result in severe human rights abuses. Fundamental questions on how the force would be led, sustained, trained, equipped and financed remain unanswered.”

But US drones are already overflying northern Mali on a daily basis. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has refused to rule out direct support for training or other operations on the ground.

A real war will soon start. It would involve the same kind of UN intervention force that has been fighting the Islamist Al Shabab militia in Somalia: African countries provide troops and Western countries cover the costs. But whereas the Ugandan, Kenyan and Burundian armies doing the heavy lifting in Somalia are reasonably competent, the West African armies that would provide troops in Mali are not.

So who will pick up the pieces if the ECOWAS force, unpopular in Mali, fails to recover the north? Probably Western troops, but that would trigger powerful anti-Western reactions all over Africa. It might produce a military victory and reunify Mali by force, but it would be a political disaster. The extremists could not hope for a better recruiting tool.

This whole operation is being driven by a reflex panic about terrorism. But northern Mali is a very long way from anywhere else, and there are no flights out.

The better approach would be to wait for the rebels in the north to fall out and start fighting one another, which they probably will. Meanwhile, train and equip Mali’s army for retaking the north by force if necessary, although the fact that it is run by turbulent and ignorant junior officers who made last March’s disastrous coup doesn’t help.

Still, Ban is right. Sometimes the best thing to do is as little as possible.

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