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?