With a new government in place, one of whose stated goals is to fight Islamist militias in the north, Malian authorities are shifting their stance on the question of external military involvement in the country’s crises. While previously Malian leaders had stated they would not accept outside troops, now they are envisioning a limited role for soldiers provided by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The regional bloc has steadily pressured Mali to solve the political and security crises stemming from a rebellion that began in January and a coup that occurred in March. Accepting ECOWAS troops could change the course of the conflict in Mali, although logistical problems (especially the small number of available troops and the lack of detailed planning) continue to surround the idea of an external intervention.
The position of Malian authorities on the role of external forces, moreover, is not yet clear: authorities are attempting to balance the appearance of national sovereignty with the acceptance of outside help.
Let’s look at some statements:
Mali does not want African troops to be deployed into combat against Islamic extremists occupying its north, but seeks logistical support from its neighbours, according to a letter seen by AFP on Thursday.
The letter from interim president Dioncounda Traore to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), dated September 1, requests “help from ECOWAS to recover occupied territories in the north and the fight against terrorism.”
“However the deployment of a constituted police unit or combatant military troops is not applicable,” read the three page letter.
Traore requested assistance in “the reorganisation of armed forces and security” in terms of training, equipment and logistical support.
For the restoration of Mali’s territorial integrity he requests “aerial support (intelligence support, direct support of engaged troops, destruction of hidden logistical bases) and the deployment of five battalions to the frontline to be gradually used to control the reconquered towns.”
Traore asks for help, in other words, but places limits on what external forces can do. One reason for this stance may be a desire to act decisively on the northern question while simultaneously blunting domestic criticism of accepting outside help:
Iba Ndiaye, a leader of the United Front for the Defence of the Republic and Democracy (FDR) — a coalition of 40 political parties — praised the move but urged authorities to “act fast to free the north of the country.”
However Nouhoum Keita from the opposition African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence (SADI) party said it was against the intervention and wanted “to liberate the north with our own armed forces”.
More important even than placating politicians may be the need for Traore to placate the Malian military, especially the former junta led by Captain Amadou Sanogo:
Leaders of an influential former military junta…immediately rejected the possible deployment of foreign troops on Malian soil.
“Our reaction is clear. We agree to logistical and air support and air strikes, but ground troops are out of the question,” said Bakary Mariko, spokesman for former junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo.
In fact, Traore’s stance may not have placated Sanogo and his faction at all. Gilles Yabi of the International Crisis Group argues that Sanogo fears the political consequences (for himself) of an external military intervention (French):
External military aid for the reconquest of the North would threaten his influence with the government…Sanogo hopes for an intervention in which the Malian army will be as numerous as possible.
ECOWAS wants a military presence in Bamako to protect the institutions of the political transition. Sanogo vehemently opposes this possibility and Traore himself rules out this option in his letter, which appears then as a concession made by the government to the soldiers.
VOA reported yesterday that ECOWAS and Mali have “resolved [their] differences…over the deployment of a standby force,” though as Andrew Lebovich points out ECOWAS has provided little detail concerning their agreement. Even if Bamako and ECOWAS agree on details, the more important struggle over the role of the external force may be the one playing out inside Bamako.