This is the second segment of a two-part series on the recent turmoil in Mali. To read the first part, click here.
By the fall of 2012, the takeover of northern Mali by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other Salafist groups had generated significant concern among Western governments. The growing presence of Islamists in the region, and their active involvement in illicit drug trading, had attracted growing attention from Washington and European capitals even prior to this development. The French and U.S. governments began sounding the alarm about the situation and the risks it posed to international security in the second half of the year, but there was little consensus as to how the situation ought to be addressed. Circumstances were greatly complicated by the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Bamako in March and the subsequent collapse of the Malian military, events which facilitated the fundamentalist takeover in the north.
Momentum eventually developed around a plan to send in a joint force composed of a 3,300 troops from neighboring West African countries and 5,000 soldiers raised from the remnants of the Malian armed forces. The deployment would be trained and partially funded by Western nations, but there was widespread acknowledgement that such an endeavor would be fraught with difficulties. The West African countries expected to contribute the bulk of the outside forces possessed little military capacity, and Mali’s army was in tatters. Moreover, many doubted that the proposed force of 8,300 troops would prove adequate to the task of retaking all of northern Mali from Islamic militants whose exact strength was unknown. These challenges were compounded by the fact that U.S. law prohibited Washington from providing military assistance to Bamako until democratic governance had been restored. With Western countries having ruled out direct military involvement, however, there were few other options available to the international community. In December, the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize the plan, but little movement on this front was expected until the fall of 2013 at the earliest.
International ambivalence about how to move forward also reflected a broader uncertainty about the threat posed by AQIM and its allies. Originally focused on overthrowing the Algerian government, the group has dedicated itself in recent years to establishing fundamentalist Islamic rule across North and West Africa. It has targeted international aid workers and Western tourists in West Africa, taking a number of hostages and executing several. Perhaps its most notable success was the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Algiers in 2007, which killed 37 people. In addition, there is evidence linking AQIM to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last September that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
However, not everyone has been persuaded that the threat posed by AQIM and allied movements in the region is dire. The group has yet to demonstrate the ability to strike targets in Europe or the United States. The violent operations it has conducted so far have been confined to the African continent, which remains its primary focus. Despite having pledged its fealty to the global al-Qaeda enterprise, the real world ties between the two groups appear to be limited. A Congressional Research Service report on Mali published earlier this year noted the uncertainty about AQIM’s exact nature:
Gauging AQIM’s ultimate goals and capacities is particularly difficult due to widely reported internal divisions over strategy, leadership, and tactics. Similar divisions appear to characterize other extremist groups in the north . . . Generally, “AQIM” appears to refer to a loose affiliation of actors, who may not be bound by command or shared goals, and whose motivations and capabilities may diverge significantly. It is furthermore not clear what AQIM’s connection with core Al Qaeda means in practice.
Still, there was little disagreement that the Islamist seizure of northern Mali represented a troubling development. Just because AQIM had not launched attacks against European and North American homelands to date did not mean they might not one day do so.
France has long maintained a strong interest in the affairs of its former African colonies, of which Mali is one. Its involvement in the region – which is not universally welcomed by those living there – has made it a target of Islamist groups. The Groupe Islamique Armé, an early (and now defunct) forerunner of AQIM, managed to mount a series of deadly attacks in Paris in 1995. In recent years, AQIM’s leadership has singled out France as a primary enemy. Four French citizens were taken hostage in Niger by AQIM in September 2010 and held in captivity in northern Mali. Two people were injured the following January in an attempted bombing of the French embassy in Bamako. Along with the U.S., Paris was a major provider of counterterrorism assistance to the Malian government prior to the coup, although the latter has not always been seen as an honest partner in the effort to combat the Islamic militants. In addition, France has stationed significant numbers of ground troops and aircraft in several West African countries.
Despite the events of 2012, French President François Hollande had repeatedly ruled out the deployment of French ground forces into Mali. The situation took on a new urgency, however, when the Islamists launched a southward offensive at the beginning of 2013, quickly seizing the town of Konna and threatening the strategically important airfield at Sevaré. With Mali’s armed forces unable to offer any meaningful resistance, the whole of the country seemed at risk of falling to AQIM and its allies. In response, France launched Operation Serval on January 11, attacking Islamist forces on the ground with fighter-bombers and helicopters, along with a modest contingent of ground troops. After stopping the Islamist advance, French and Malian soldiers were joined by forces from Chad and other neighboring countries as they moved to reclaim the northern part of Mali. Jihadist fighters melted into the countryside rather than face superior French firepower, and by early February the Salafists had been evicted from all of the north’s major population centers. Since then the military focus has been on eradicating the Islamist forces that escaped into the mountains and combating suicide bombings and other guerilla attacks that they have mounted from their hideouts.
Statements out of Paris have been contradictory from the beginning, expressing both a willingness to stay “as long as is necessary” and a desire to withdraw French forces from Mali as quickly as possible. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius initially said that French military involvement would only last a matter of weeks, but the disarray of the Malian military, limited military capabilities of neighboring countries, and an increasingly determined Islamist insurgency rendered that projection moot. Subsequent statements out of Paris indicated that the 4,000 French troops in Mali would be withdrawn by March, but that was later changed to April. As the need for military operations in the north continued, the deadline was further postponed until France eventually announced that it would keep roughly 1,000 troops in Mali indefinitely.
Up to now, at least, Malians in both the north and the south have been outspoken in their gratitude to the French for ousting the Islamists. The liberating units were greeted enthusiastically by local communities who had endured ten months of Taliban-like rule. (When Hollande visited Mali in February, the interim government gave him a baby camel as a thank you. He left it in the care of a Timbuktu family who, following a tragic misunderstanding, subsequently slaughtered and ate the animal.) Somewhat predictably, however, there are signs that the pro-French sentiment that swept the country may be ebbing as the challenges of reunifying the country become clearer to all involved.
The overthrow of Islamist rule in the north certainly counts as a positive development. In late February, Chadian forces killed Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, a prominent AQIM leader in Mali, and claimed to have also killed another important figure, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who masterminded the January attack on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant. (Belmokhtar’s death remains unconfirmed, and he’s been declared dead before.) French military officials also estimate that hundreds of militants have been eliminated. But the Islamists in the north knew they would eventually face an armed confrontation in the form of a counteroffensive by the Malian army or outside intervention, and they spent much of their time in power storing weapons and other supplies in underground caves and tunnels. The area’s difficult terrain makes it hard to assess their strength and staying power with much confidence. Many militants were also able to simply disappear by blending into the small communities that dot the northern desert. Others managed to slip across Mali’s porous borders into neighboring countries such as Mauritania and Niger in order to regroup. As a result, Islamic fundamentalists are likely to pose an ongoing threat to Malian security.
Unfortunately, the jihadists are only one of several problems facing Mali and the international community in moving forward. The French intervention did little to resolve the political turmoil in Bamako that began with the March 2012 military coup. The coup’s leader, army Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, stepped aside under international pressure a few weeks after the takeover and was replaced by a transitional government, but he still wields considerable influence behind the scenes. Deep divisions also remain within the Malian army between those who supported the civilian government’s overthrow and those who were loyal to it. This rift, which mirrors a similar divide within Mali’s overall population, has resulted in violent clashes between the two factions as recently as February – a development which does not bode well for Mali’s ability to provide for its own security any time soon.
The Tuareg-led Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), whose rebellion against the central government’s writ in the north touched off Mali’s recent turbulence in early 2012, renounced its pursuit of an independent state after the Islamic fundamentalists, its onetime allies, turned on it a short time later, and expressed its willingness to fight alongside the French. The movement’s leaders continue to insist on a political arrangement that includes significant political autonomy for the north, and they are unwilling to lay down their arms until that goal has been achieved. The MNLA controls the Kidal region bordering Algeria, and it has a strong presence in other parts of the north. French forces have left the group unmolested, a stance that has been the focus of growing anger in other parts of the country. Malians in the south, who make up 90 percent of the country’s population, view the MNLA as ultimately responsible for the Islamist takeover – and they have a point, since the separatist group initially aligned itself with the jihadists. At the same time, the northerners’ grievances against the south are real and enduring. Yet it is difficult to know what role the MNLA should play as Mali tries to move forward. It is overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Tuaregs, yet it’s far from clear that the group represents the views of most of Mali’s Tuareg population. Moreover, Tuaregs do not even constitute a majority of the population in the north. In any case, one of the challenges facing French and other international forces will be to minimize possibilities for violence between the MNLA and the Malian military as the national government moves to reassert its control in contested areas.
The international community’s plan to help Mali get back on its feet is twofold. The first component concerns security. The Islamist offensive and subsequent French intervention led to the acceleration of plans for deploying a peacekeeping force from other West African nations, despite widespread doubts about its effectiveness. Recognizing the need for more robust international involvement, the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution in late April to “blue hat” the West African contingent, converting it into a U.N. peacekeeping operation that will consist of 12,640 soldiers and police. The Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, referred to as MINUSMA, is scheduled to become operational on July 1. Its primary responsibilities will be to consolidate the security gains achieved by Operation Serval and ensure that northern Mali remains stable enough for a new civilian government in Bamako to reassert its authority. The European Union has also moved forward with plans to train four Malian army battalions, essentially from scratch – a process that is specifically to include much needed human rights training.
The U.N. peacekeeping operation in Mali is likely to prove challenging. The Security Council’s authorization precludes MINUSMA from initiating any “offensive” combat operations, but it will be permitted to act to defend itself or the civilian population it is tasked with protecting. This distinction was included in the resolution in order to garner Russian support, but it could prove difficult to observe in practice. (The council also authorized the French forces remaining in Mali to come to MINUSMA’s aid if necessary.) Moreover, it remains unclear where all of the troops needed for the U.N. mission will come from. In April, Chad, which is generally thought to have one of the more capable armed forces in the region, announced that it would withdraw the 2,000 troops it had already sent to Mali.
The second goal of the international community is to help Mali get back on its feet politically and economically. The country’s need for non-military aid is considerable. Economic circumstances are dire in northern Mali, where Islamist attacks on tourists and foreign aid workers have undermined two vital sources of economic activity in an already impoverished area. The restiveness of the region’s population is likely to continue until those conditions improve. The suspension of international development assistance following the coup has also taken a toll on the nation’s economy as a whole. On a more immediate level, Mali’s turmoil has resulted in a humanitarian disaster, with nearly half a million residents displaced from their homes and 750,000 in need of food aid. Relief assistance has continued throughout the crisis, but the lack of security has made it difficult to reach those who need it most.
International donors recently pledged $4.2 billion in aid to Mali as part of what EU officials have described as "a total relaunch of the country.” However, the assistance is largely contingent on the Malian government’s willingness to respect human rights, combat corruption, and restore democracy. The transitional regime in Bamako that has governed Mali since Sanogo was forced out in April 2012 has announced its intention to hold national elections by the end of July, a plan which has been strongly encouraged by the U.S. and French governments. Many seasoned observers view the rush to hold elections as being unrealistic and perhaps counterproductive in the long run, however. Numerous technical and logistical hurdles will need to be overcome in the coming weeks if a credible nationwide referendum is to be held. With Islamist insurgents continuing to operate in some areas, it’s also uncertain that security conditions in the north will be conducive to holding elections by month’s end. An even bigger obstacle is the lack of any political reconciliation between north and south. Until some mutually acceptable settlement can be reached, northern Malians are unlikely to accept the results of any national elections. Yet the interim government in Bamako lacks the legitimacy needed to engage in the necessary negotiations. Finding a way through this conundrum will be no easy task, even with international mediation.
Mali’s future is likely to remain cloudy for some time. Liberating the north from AQIM and its allies was a necessary step in putting the country back together, but in some ways it was the easy part. Having dispersed into the region’s vast, ungoverned spaces, jihadist guerrillas are likely to remain a significant security threat to Mali and its neighbors for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely that combined Malian and international forces will ever be strong enough to eradicate their presence completely, but it should be possible to isolate and contain the Islamists while a new government in Bamako works with the international community to put the country back on a stable, secure footing. Achieving this latter goal is likely to be a tall order, one that will require sustained international involvement, but the alternative is to see Mali to relapse into the violent turmoil from which it is only now emerging.
-- Richard Purcell