Talk of foreign intervention in Mali continues. Leaders of nearby countries, especially but not only Niger, have expressed alarm about Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its alliance with the Islamist group Ansar al Din, which now controls key areas in northern Mali. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), France, the United States, and others have talked (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) about military intervention in Mali for months. Over time the level of seriousness seems to be gradually increasing. Yesterday (French), President Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire told a French newspaper, “Negotiations are continuing but, if they were not to succeed, we would be obligated to utilize force to clear northern Mali of these terrorist and Islamist groups.”
More significant still is the Malian military’s reported willingness to allow a foreign force into the country, a change from their previous stance.
Coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo had initially expressed opposition to accepting assistance from foreign troops, and Thursday’s announcement appeared to be a softening of that position.
[Military chief of staff Ibrahim] Dembele said Thursday that Malian officials would agree to “security assistance” in addition to help in taking back the troubled north.
“Before deployment of the foreign troops, there should be public awareness about the mission’s objective,” he said. “Once people understand, it will facilitate the presence of foreign troops.”
This week, the European Union also suggested a readiness to back an external force in Mali:
EU foreign ministers gathered in Brussels asked EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton to make “concrete proposals” on support for “the possible deployment of a well-prepared ECOWAS force in Mali, under a UN mandate and in conjunction with a government of national unity and the African Union.”
Washington, in the person of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, has seemed fairly unenthusiastic about the idea of an intervention throughout the spring and summer. This week, however, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflicts Michael Sheehan spoke of a need to “accelerate” US efforts to foster political progress in southern Mali, deny Al Qaeda access to “ungoverned places,” and keep all options open in the face of a “looming threat.” More on Asst. Sec. Sheehan’s remarks here.
Commentators such as Todd Moss have argued compellingly that the crisis in northern Mali cannot be solved until the political situation is clarified in the south. That concern seemed present in Sheehan’s thinking as well. But as an ECOWAS-imposed July 31 deadline for the formation of a national unity government in Mali approaches, southern Mali politics appear bitter and confused. This state of affairs leaves many wondering where political resolution will come from.
In short, then, it seems there is increasing international talk of and enthusiasm for an intervention, but limited progress (at least in public) on the political and logistical conditions that would make such an intervention feasible. Various players favor an ECOWAS-led, European- (and American-?) backed force, but it is not clear how such a force would obtain sufficient troops or what its goals and strategies would be.