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?


15 thoughts on “An Armed Intervention in Northern Mali?

  1. There was a good piece by Todd Moss at the Center for Global Development blog a couple weeks ago:

    I think the title pretty much says it all. It seems hard to imagine military or negotiated solutions being very effective without a government in Bamako that has some control over southern Mali. And a government that the military will view as legitimate and won’t mind taking orders from.

    I understand the impatience of some (especially Niger), but ECOWAS needs to have the patience to let a process play out in the south that results in a legit negotiating partner in Bamako. ECOWAS and other powers can support that process by keeping up a credible enough threat of force in the north to keep the movements there contained. But for now I suspect it’ll remain at that – a mission of containment – and probably won’t be re-evaluated until Bamako can get its act together. (Or if it becomes clear that they can’t.)

    • The military (or at least low level officers) already threw out one civilian government and allegedly allowed a mob to attack one of the civilian interim leaders. I’m not sure what they’ll consider legitimate. Personally I’m skeptical of them having any ability to create a government strong enough to rule.

  2. The U.S. doesn’t want to get behind what could be a costly failure, especially not after having spent so much political capital on Libya and Syria. Since Mali barely registers in the mind of the average American any decisions will at least be delayed till after November, and we definitely won’t see a large American force on the ground. Some air support is possible, but the U.S. will want Mali to have some kind of government it can recognize first.

    This reminds me a bit of Communist/nationalist movements, except the militant Islamist groups don’t have a great power backing them.

    • These factors partially explain why the U.S. has been so slow and quiet to react to an al-Qaeda related threat. It would be suicidal to intervene without a popularly-recognized government in place, and 3,000 ECOWAS troops will only cover the initial phase of a length campaign. However I don’t see how the AU and UN can achieve a political resolution with opposing parties, so that leaves the military option by default – US/EU airpower/Special Ops would be inevitable. Could be early 2013, but that’s a long time to spot the MNLA, Ansar Dine and MUJAO. And the Mali government could still be in shambles by then.

      A serious risk/reward assessment is taking place at some high levels.

    • Definitely it seems Mali is not much of a priority in Washington, and the USG seems very skeptical of ECOWAS’ current plans and capabilities.

  3. Your question Alex is a good one: Do you expect an intervention to take place? If so, who do you think will participate?

    Response: It will be Mauritania and Niger. Why and how? Mauritania has a problem wit AQIM that is threatening Ould Abdel Aziz power et Niger does not want the Tuaregs to turn against Niger. Both are likely to enlist the MNLA to go against AnsarDine et its affiliates AQIM and MUJAO. Once the latter group out, they will push for a greater autonomy for the tuaregs in the north and remake an unified Mali. Read the statement from Messahel today in Addis (sending you the statement from Mesahel from Jeune Afrique). Anyway you can’ t trust Algiers and Ouagadougou as they have played so much of their role in fabricating things. Like the US and France. Can’ t be trusted for any lasting solution.

    • Do you really expect them to create a unified Mali and then devolve it? I’m doubtful as to whether or not they can put up the resources necessary just to pretend it’s unified.

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