Mali: Why Intervention is better than Inaction

2012-11-16 05:56

Earlier this year, Islamists in the form of Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and its regional offshoot – the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO) seized control of northern Mali having routed the Malian armed forces. With the encouragement of Paris, the UN Security Council passed a resolution on 12th October 2012 calling on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to prepare for an international intervention force and giving them 45 days to lay out detailed plans.

On 7 November, West African army chiefs adopted a plan to expel Islamists from northern Mali. Whilst details of the plan have not been made public, it is expected to involve just over 4000 West African troops and will target the main population centres in northern Mali.

This military blueprint was subsequently passed by the ECOWAS regional heads of state. The next step for its authorization will occur when it is formally presented to the UNSC on November 26. France has already undertaken to provide “logistical aid” to an ECOWAS force and has already begun training the Malian armed forces with a view to retake the north.

Those opposed to intervention raise three objections. First, that the human cost could be high on account of engaging in urban warfare in cities against an enemy who does not wear a uniform and can therefore easily blend into the civilian population. Whilst there is such a risk, it should also be noted that the costs of doing nothing and maintaining the status quo and leaving northern Mali as a terrorist enclave holds far more risk for the region and the world.

More importantly, experience in both Somalia and Yemen point to the fact that when faced with a superior conventional force, Islamists like Al Shabaab or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula tend to retreat. Good intelligence could also serve to minimize civilian casualties.

A second objection to intervention is the prospect of a negotiated settlement.

Ansar Dine recently sent a delegation to the Foreign Minister of Burkina Faso, Djibril Bassole, a mediator in the crisis in Mali. Here they called for “inclusive political dialogue” whilst at the same time stating that it “rejects all forms of extremism and terrorism”. Bassole noted however that the group did not make any reference to the issue of sharia law being imposed in the north nor was Ansar Dine willing to cut off its ties with AQIM and MUJAO.

More importantly, whilst these peace envoys were in Burkina Faso a strict interpretation of sharia law was being imposed on the local populace in northern Mali and Ansar Dine was strengthening itself militarily. Ansar Dine’s plea for a negotiated settlement strikes one as not only insincere but aims to cause divisions within the African continent, knowing that certain countries like Algeria (which shares a 1,400 kilometre border with Mali and has its own restive Tuareg population) have been arguing for a negotiated settlement. For this reason Ansar Dine has also sent “peace envoys” to Algeria.

The third and final objection relates to the small size of the force proposed compared to the territory which needs to be retaken from the Islamists. Northern Mali consists of 300,000 square miles. However, it is erroneous to assume that such a 4000 strong force’s aim is to recapture such a vast territory.

Rather its aim as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius asserted is to focus on the main cities in the north where the populations are in any event concentrated. Once these Islamist elements are flushed out of the cities, classic counter-insurgency warfare can begin.

Moreover, it is wrong to assume that the ECOWAS force will be acting on its own. Mali’s own armed forces will be assisting and the Europeans are assisting with Special Forces, military intelligence and logistics.

Such an intervention force could also build on several factors which work in favour of the intervening force. First, the local population has suffered terribly under the brutal rule of the Islamists. At various points these residents took to the streets. In August, 2012 residents of Gao demonstrated against the ban on playing football and video games. The desecration of the tomb of Timbuktu’s most revered spiritual leaders, Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, by Ansar Dine angered residents further and they took to the streets. These protests were brutally put down by the Islamists.

Any intervention force needs to capitalize on this antipathy of local residents against Ansar Dine, AQIM and MUJAO.

Second, the Tuareg nationalists located within the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has been attacking Ansar Dine, AQIM and MUJAO positions. These MNLA militias could be a useful force multiplier for the intervening force.

Third, the Islamists in the north are also deeply divided. In early November, Hicham Bilal, the leader of a MUJAO katiba comprising 100 fighters defected with his troops and is currently residing in Burkina Faso. Bilal was the only black African commander of MUJAO and he complained about the racism he and his troops had to endure at the hands of the Arab members of MUJAO, AQIM and Ansar Dine.

Another reason for his defection related to his horror at MUJAO’s involvement in narco-trafficking. An intervening force could also exploit these divisions further.

Whilst there are certainly dangers inherent to any military intervention, the strategic considerations of inaction considerably outweigh these dangers. I concur with Bill Roggio who eloquently noted that any “...delay in taking action in northern Mali has given the jihadists an opportunity to indoctrinate, train, and organize recruits from the West African nations, and then send them home to establish networks there”.

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