Western diplomats see danger in Mali

By IndepthAfrica
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Nov 4th, 2012
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Habibou Kouyate/Getty Images
People hold banners on top of a truck during a protest called by the Coordination of Patriotic Organizations in Mali (COPAM) against a foreign military intervention in Mali to reclaim the Islamist-controlled north.
By Aron Heller / The Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG — If top diplomats are right, the world’s next inevitable war is in Mali, a West African country where al-Qaida-linked militants have seized control of vast swaths of the Sahara Desert.

Western capitals are desperately trying to prevent Mali from becoming the next Somalia: an African country with a notoriously unstable government challenged by Islamic militants who may also pose a risk to the United States and its interests.

Lending urgency to those calling for action, U.S. officials cited in news reports have implicated al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb, one of the groups controlling northern Mali, in the September attack on the U.S. mission in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

But the idea being touted — a difficult, Western-backed African military intervention against the rebels in the north — risks turning Mali into, well, the next Somalia.

And the model being suggested for the military operation? It’s from Somalia.

An ongoing mission by African Union forces to defeat al-Qaida-linked Somali rebels hasn’t yet delivered clear victory, but its success in driving the militia out of the main cities, opening the way for the first government and president in 21 years, has fired military imaginations.

Like Somalia, Mali has seen radical Islamist fighters take over most of the country and institute a strict brand of Shariah law, amputating thieves’ hands, repressing women and recruiting children to fight. And like Somalia, Mali is a country with myriad complex tribal rivalries, shifting allegiances and long-held grievances.

But Mali isn’t Somalia.

“The analogy overestimates the capacity of the West African forces,” said Gregory Mann, a Columbia University expert on Mali, referring to troops that have been promised for Mali military action by ECOWAS, the regional leadership body. “There are huge logistical problems which ECOWAS doesn’t have the capacity to solve on its own.”

The U.N. Security Council has given the U.N. and ECOWAS until Nov. 26 to come up with a military plan to retake northern Mali from the Islamic rebels. France, the main champion of swift military intervention, has ruled out boots on the ground, while Germany and the U.S. have ruled out sending forces, but all have spoken of intelligence support, military training and other assistance.

Analyst Anouar Boukhars of the Carnegie Endowment said ECOWAS would need the support of a powerful foreign air force to prevail against the Islamists.

“We know that ECOWAS can’t do it by itself, and they know it, too,” he said. “There has to be logistical support and air support, most probably from France. The French said they would not put feet on the ground.”

Military and government officials from the U.S. met counterparts in Paris last week to discuss security and intelligence in the northern Sahel region, including Mali, news agencies reported.

Mali was a flawed democracy of 20 years’ standing in West Africa’s troubled “coup belt,” but years of mismanagement, corruption and the central government’s perceived long neglect of the ethnic Tuareg people of the north sowed the seeds for the latest Tuareg insurgency early this year and the country’s spiral into uncertainty.

The stunning April seizure of some two-thirds of the country was spearheaded by a Tuareg rebel group known as the MNLA. In the confusion that followed a March coup, the Tuareg group took advantage of a weak and divided Mali army, sweeping in and taking control of the north hand-in-hand with Islamic fighters from the group Ansar Dine, who were later joined by al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb and another radical group.

The Tuareg group, quickly outflanked by Ansar Dine, was forced out, and lately has stepped back from its demands for an independent homeland, in what Mann says is an effort to woo Western military support and project itself as a local proxy force opposed to extremism.

Some have accused the West of overstating the threat. But to European and U.S. military officials, the risk of underestimating AQIM, and allowing an al-Qaida affiliate with a rich source of funding from criminal enterprises to dominate so much territory in northern Africa, is an intolerable one.

But the questions are myriad. A power-sharing government that took control in April after the coup leaders stood down is weak and lacks legitimacy, and has done nothing to prepare for elections or a transition back to democratic rule. Mali’s army is divided, poorly equipped and ill-prepared for a long, intractable war in the north that would likely claim many casualties. And if West African forces were deployed in the punishing desert terrain, it’s not certain how they would cope against the combat-hardened rebels.

The big question is the timing of any operation, with analysts warning it is crucial to unite Mali’s divided politicians in the southern capital, Bamako, to reach a clear consensus on military action and the political transition back to democracy — agreement that is presently woefully lacking.

“Swift action without a coherent agenda and political position from the south is going to be devastating,” said political analyst Susanna Wing of Haverford College, outside Philadelphia. “You can’t have this crisis going on and on in the south at the same time as getting involved in a messy military conflict.”

Some fear that trying to untangle Mali’s entrenched domestic problems before a military attack will give the northern jihadists time to build their defenses, recruit more fighters and dig in.

Virginia Comolli of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies predicted no military action until early next year, and said it was unlikely that elections could be held in the near future, given the lack of progress made on this by Mali’s leaders.

“I think if ECOWAS wait to deploy troops until a stable government is established,” she said, “it may be too late.”

JERUSALEM — He has been Israel’s prime minister, military chief, the country’s most decorated soldier and, for the past five years, its defense minister and moderate face to the West.

Now, Ehud Barak’s long and distinguished career might be coming to an end. He is unpopular with the public, and polls predict his Independence Party will barely make it into parliament in the Jan. 22 election, if at all. Most commentators predict his days in politics are numbered, but others say it may be too early to count the wily general out.

“Barak is all alone now. He just has too many enemies,” said political analyst Hanan Kristal. “So why is he running? Is that how he wants to end his career? The only explanation is that he is a fighter, and a fighter doesn’t give up.”

Mr. Barak, 70, earned his reputation as a warrior through a military career that included commanding some of Israel’s most daring hostage release operations and raids.

As commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, Mr. Barak led the 1972 raid on a hijacked Sabena airliner on the ground in Israel with the commandos disguised as airline technicians. A photograph of Mr. Barak standing on the wing in white overalls as the freed hostages were disembarking has become part of Israeli lore.

The following year, he led a commando operation in Beirut, sneaking into the city disguised as a woman.

A war hero hailed as a brilliant military strategist, he was once seen as a worthy heir to his mentor, the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But in politics, Mr. Barak rose and fell quickly.

In 1999, just four years after retiring from the military, Mr. Barak became prime minister. Political allies and foes alike considered him aloof and imperious, resenting the go-it-alone style that served him in the military. His term lasted less than two years — the shortest ever for an elected Israeli premier — his government crumbling with the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising that followed an unsuccessful summit with the Palestinian leader and U.S. president.

He was crushed by hard-liner Ariel Sharon in a 2001 election, leaving behind a legacy of failed peacemaking with the Palestinians and Syria, despite unprecedented offers of sweeping territorial concessions, and a contentious decision to abruptly end Israel’s 18-year military occupation of southern Lebanon. The overnight unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon created a vacuum that was quickly filled by the anti-Israel Hezbollah guerrilla group.

Despite the dramatic collapse, Mr. Barak credited his wide-reaching offer to withdraw from nearly all of the West Bank and Gaza with exposing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s essential rejection of the peace offer — a view endorsed by President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Barak easily recaptured the leadership of Labor in 2007, replacing civilian Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who led a botched war in Lebanon the previous summer. But Mr. Barak remained personally unpopular and his party, which had led Israel to independence and governed it for its first three decades, had lost its public appeal.

After leading Labor to an all-time low of 13 of 120 parliamentary seats in the 2009 election, Mr. Barak enraged his dovish base by joining a coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who takes a hard line toward the Palestinians.

Israeli hard-liners didn’t like him any better, accusing him of undercutting the West Bank settlement movement by withholding construction approvals, clearing squatters from West Bank homes and encouraging Mr. Netanyahu to support a now-expired, U.S.-initiated slowdown in settlement construction.

Mr. Barak eventually broke away from Labor to form his new party, Independence, with a few junior allies. The party never resonated with the public, but Mr. Barak himself retained his clout in the Netanyahu government, acting as the prime minister’s point man to the United States. There, he was welcomed as a moderating influence on Mr. Netanyahu’s hard line toward the Arab world and Iran’s nuclear program.

Yet even that alliance — dating back to the 1970s, when Mr. Barak was Mr. Netanyahu’s commander in the commando unit — seems to have suffered with reports that the two are at odds over whether to defer to the U.S. on any attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. Mr. Barak’s detractors in Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party want him replaced and have begun criticizing him openly.

Ahead of elections, Mr. Barak is trying to carve out his electoral place in the center, by staking out more dovish positions on Iran and separating religion and state.

This strategy does not seem to be working. A new poll published last week in the Maariv daily predicted Mr. Barak’s Independence Party would not receive enough votes to win even a single seat in parliament. The survey, conducted by the TNS/Teleseker agency, questioned 500 people and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Similar polls in recent days had forecast Mr. Barak would win a maximum of three seats. Under Israel’s system of proportional representation, the number of votes a party receives determines how many seats it controls in parliament.

Last week, Mr. Netanyahu announced plans for an alliance with a party led by his hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, creating a superbloc that appears positioned to coast to victory.

That partnership has fueled speculation that centrist and dovish parties may also join forces. But even that does not bode well for Mr. Barak, who has rocky relations with all the major candidates and whose party would likely lose its already small base of supporters to a larger bloc.

Leaders of that potential bloc, however, are new political faces generally considered not experienced enough for the top job.

Mr. Barak’s party is hoping that his experience will be his salvation at a time when the region is churning with popular dissent, civil war and, perhaps, war with Iran. His party’s election ads depict him gazing sternly above the slogan: “Ehud Barak — because we need a responsible adult here.”

“There are many who have eulogized Ehud Barak, and most aren’t in politics anymore,” said Einat Wilf, a lawmaker in Mr. Barak’s party. “He’s the first who will tell you there are people who don’t like him. But we don’t have many leaders of his caliber, and people will consider that when they vote.”

Mr. Barak, who did not respond to multiple interview requests, hopes to cling to the Defense Ministry whatever happens.

If he doesn’t make it into parliament, he could still hang on to his job. Under Israeli law, Cabinet ministers besides the premier do not have to be elected lawmakers, and such appointments have been made in the past.

“With so few potential leaders in the ring, he can still fill a role,” said Yossi Beilin, Mr. Barak’s former justice minister. “Therefore it is no surprise that Barak is still a great hope.”

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