Whither US Policy on Mali? [Updated]

As the analyst Andrew Lebovich writes, US statements on Mali have been “contradictory,” creating confusion about the trajectory of Washington’s policy toward the country. The State Department seems to have undergone a genuine change of heart concerning the wisdom of an armed intervention in Mali by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). But it is harder to read words and deeds coming from the Department of Defense and the White House, especially regarding the possibility of direct US military action in northern Mali.

Department of State

Foggy Bottom’s position on Mali has evolved considerably over the last few months. To quote from an earlier post:

In May, [Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie] Carson told reporters that ECOWAS’ “mission and role” in Mali “must be defined before we make any kind of commitment.” Remarks by Carson in late June sounded even less enthusiastic: “We think an ECOWAS mission to militarily retake the north is ill-advised and not feasible.”

In September, however,

In an interview with VOA, Carson said Mali’s military should accept an intervention force from the Economic Community of West African States, because the army is fractured by the flight of soldiers to Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

“The Malian military has been broken. It is now in need of restructuring and repair and rehabilitation,” Carson explained. “It should accept the support, the camaraderie, the mentoring and the friendship of other ECOWAS states as it attempts to get itself together so that it can help address the issues of terrorism in the northern part of the country, as well as humanitarian support.”

ECOWAS appears to have convinced State, then, that it has a plan for helping the Malian government retake territory in the north, and that supporting this plan is better than the status quo.

[UPDATE]: As Twitter user Stephanie Lamy adds, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated that US support for an ECOWAS intervention may hinge on whether the Malian government is able to hold elections before the deployment. At the UN General Assembly meeting last week, Clinton said, “In the end, only a democratically elected government will have the legitimacy to achieve a negotiated political settlement in northern Mali, end the rebellion and restore the rule of law.”

Department of Defense and the White House

Last week, General Carter Ham, head of US AFRICOM, visited Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria to discuss the crisis in Mali. Amid ongoing discussions of an external military intervention in Mali, Gen. Ham’s stated that the US will not be directly involved:

“We first need to re-establish a legitimate government in Bamako, meet the pressing needs of the people, deal with the serious humanitarian crisis ravaging the region and finally tackle the terrorist groups,” General Ham said. He stressed that “the only alternative which could not exist is the American military presence in northern Mali”.

The Washington Post, however, recently reported that the Obama administration has considered forms of direct intervention in Mali and elsewhere in the region:

“Right now, we’re not in position to do much about [the presence of terrorist groups in northern Mali],” said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official involved in the talks. As a result, he said, officials have begun to consider contingencies, including the question of “do we or don’t we” deploy drones.

This is not the first time that US officials have raised the possibility of American force against militants in northern Mali. In July, Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Sheehan made remarks that sound similar to Gen. Ham’s, but did not rule out the use of violence:

“Mali is a difficult situation because it starts with the government in Bamako,” Sheehan said. “We have to find a way to move forward with the government first and I think we need to start to accelerate that effort.”

[...]

Sheehan went on to say that the area north of Mali’s Niger River has become almost ungoverned and an area of focus for the Department of Defense.

“We cannot allow al Qaeda to sit in ungoverned places,” Sheehan said of northern Mali.

Sheehan indicated the U.S. military is considering how to handle the problem.

“All those options will be considered,” Sheehan said. “There have been no decisions and things would be considered and they are being concerned to what is a looming threat.”

The common denominator in these statements is an emphasis on establishing the integrity of the Malian government as the first step toward solving the country’s crises. Beyond that, though, there is significant uncertainty about Washington’s intentions.

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The statements from State and Defense can be reconciled; indeed, in a way they are separate conversations, one having to do with supporting ECOWAS and the other having to do with direct US military action against militants. This thematic difference is reflected in a geographical one, with State seeming to focus on West Africa and Defense seeming to focus (at least in Ham’s trip) on North Africa. Indeed it is the very sense that the two conversations are separate, and that Defense has not made a firm decision on the form its involvement will take, that leaves me struggling to discern where Washington’s Mali policy is headed.

Another Post on a Potential Foreign Intervention in Mali

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.

An Armed Intervention in Northern Mali?

In January, the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) launched a rebellion in northern Mali (aka “the Azawad”). Following a March 22 coup against the government in southern Mali, rebels secured de facto independence for the north. But the MNLA fell out with Ansar al Din (Arabic: “Defenders of the Faith”), a group that wants to impose shari’a across Mali. Ansar al Din has links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). The Islamist coalition has outmaneuvered the MNLA politically and, recently, militarily, and now claims control of the key northern cities Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal.

Throughout the spring and summer, there has been talk of an armed intervention in northern Mali by outside powers to defeat the rebels and address the perceived threat from the Islamist coalition. Potential forces for such an intervention might come from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), France, or (less likely) the United States. The Malian government claims it has 4,000 troops ready to head north. But the government, currently torn by uncertainty over who rules (soldiers or the civilians appointed as interim caretakers) and lacking administrative and military capacity, does not appear able to retake the north on its own. Indeed, ECOWAS is “losing patience” with the Malian government and recently threatened to withdraw recognition of the government if Mali cannot assemble a government of “national unity” by July 31. With such problems in southern Mali, what might outside powers do in northern Mali?

Several times, ECOWAS has floated the idea of activating a force of some 3,000 troops and sending them to Mali to help restore order in the south, to begin reconquering the north, or both. Mali’s neighbor Niger has been particularly vocal in expressing alarm about the dangers of Islamic radicalism and terrorism in northern Mali. ECOWAS has sought – but so far not obtained – United Nations approval for such an intervention. The UN, however, “expresse[d] its readiness to further examine the request of ECOWAS once additional information has been provided regarding the objectives, means and modalities of the envisaged deployment.” Even if ECOWAS secures UN approval, however, major questions remain, starting with doubts about whether a force of 3,000 could retake the north (the African Union Mission in Somalia, just for comparison’s sake, had a force of approximately 10,000 for quite some time, and received authorization this year to increase its force to over 17,000). One Malian source (French) reports that ECOWAS has sent a “technical evaluation mission” to Bamako to “do the groundwork” for an intervention.

What of France? Mali’s former colonial ruler has been supportive of ECOWAS plans for intervention. Just yesterday, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, “In the north, at one moment or another there will probably be the use of force,” adding, in Reuters’ words, “that intervention would be African-led but supported by international forces.” France and the UN, in other words, seem to want ECOWAS to provide more details and plan more thoroughly before they will back an intervention.

Washington’s stance, as expressed through statements by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, has partly resembled France’s but has been more cautious in tone. In May, Carson told reporters that ECOWAS’ “mission and role” in Mali “must be defined before we make any kind of commitment.” Remarks by Carson in late June sounded even less enthusiastic: “We think an ECOWAS mission to militarily retake the north is ill-advised and not feasible.” The US has small numbers of soldiers on “standby” in Mali, a presence that has generated commentary and questions in the press recently. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely at present that the US would openly provide large numbers of troops for an armed intervention in northern Mali.

There are other countries who might intervene in different ways in northern Mali, particularly Mauritania (whose troops pursued AQIM fighters into northern Mali several times in 2010 and 2011) and Algeria, several of whose diplomats were kidnapped by MUJWA in April (three of the diplomats were freed yesterday). The UK, which has said that intervention in Mali would be a “last resort,” indicated that Algeria would be a part of any such operation. Neither Mauritania nor Algeria belongs to ECOWAS.

On a final note, I recommend reading IRIN‘s “Mali: Compromise or Force in North?”

What do you think? Do you expect an intervention to take place? If so, who do you think will participate?

Happy Independence, South Sudan!

The Republic of South Sudan officially becomes independent today, the result of a referendum held exactly six months ago in which Southerners voted overwhelmingly to secede from North Sudan. Congratulations to the people of the world’s newest country – whatever challenges lie ahead, you have fought long and hard for this achievement, and I hope you enjoy this day to the fullest extent.

Please treat this as an open thread, and if you are tracking events in Sudan on Twitter, I suggest following @glcarlstrom, @bechamilton, @wasilalitaha, @maggiefick, @rovingbandit, @SudaneseThinker, and @simsimt for coverage, along with a host of others.

From the US side, Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, Special Envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman, former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, and other diplomats are set to attend. It will be interesting to see who else attends – and what Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, who is also scheduled to be there, has to say to his former countrymen. It will also be interesting to see who recognizes South Sudan, and in what order.

Please post your reactions in the comments, and I’ll update with any critical information.

Somalia: US Hails AMISOM’s Military Progress, Criticizes TFG’s Politics

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson recently gave an interview to All Africa on US government positions on various political situations in Africa. A large portion of the interview focused on the crisis in southern Somalia, where the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) are battling the rebel movement al Shabab. Carson credited AMISOM for recent military progress against al Shabab, but criticized the TFG”s lack of political accomplishments.

We have seen AMISOM perform extraordinarily well…One can no longer say, derisively, that only six or seven city blocks are controlled by Amisom forces. Amisom now controls 60 to 70 percent of Mogadishu and continues to make serious and significant headway against Shabaab forces in the area.

But we have been disappointed that the military progress has not been matched by similar political progress on the part of the TFG, which has not been able to do the things that it was assigned to do under the Djibouti process. It is important that the TFG be more than a government in name alone. It must continue to reach out and become more inclusive and representative of all of Somalia’s important clans and sub-clans and regional groups. It must look for ways to bring in and integrate and collaborate with the forces that are fighting against extremism and al-Shabaab. It must be able to deliver services and assistance to the people who need it. Where AMISOM makes progress in the city, the TFG must also be able to make progress in delivering services.

Carson also expressed disappointment in the Transitional Federal Parliament’s decision, taken in January, to extend its mandate by three years. This move flew in the face of the fact that the TFG’s mandate expires this August.

Carson then moved on to talk about ways in which the US is essentially bypassing the TFG.

The second track that we rolled out in October is to expand contacts and development assistance relationship and engagement with the governments of Somaliland in Hargeisa and Puntland in Bossaso. We think that it is important to reach out to those governments and to provide assistance in economic areas to help strengthen their young governments as they try to make democratic gains and progress. We also see them as partners in dealing with piracy; particularly the government of Puntland, which is nominally in control of many of the areas from which pirates come, such as Hobyo and and Eyl.

[...]

In the south [where the TFG's sway is theoretically greatest - Alex], we are looking for ways to effectively work at the very local level, sub-regional governments – to help them provide stability and opportunities for greater economic development. These would be groups that are not associated with the TFG; but are opposed to the radical extremism espoused by al-Shabaab. We see a number of clan groups in Galmudug, for example, where leaders are determined to provide both stability and economic opportunity and security to their people. We’re talking with them and looking for ways to provide development assistance support to their efforts.

Stepping back, Washington is clearly happy to see AMISOM make headway against al Shabab, but it seems that Washington’s disappointment with the TFG outweighs that happiness. The parliament’s reach for more time alienated the US, and it appears that going forward Washington will decentralize its political contacts in Somalia even more. What that says for the TFG’s future I can’t say, but August is not far off, and from the TFG’s standpoint it’s a bad time to have run afoul of Washington.