The long running civil conflict in Mali resumed in January 2012 after several years of fragile peace. The Taureg Malian National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), supported by jihadist groups, rebelled against the central government. The rebels were strongly reinforced by fighters and heavy weapons brought to Mali from Libya following that country’s civil war. Resistance and fighting spread throughout northern Mali before the government took action.
Behind the scenes, the military became increasingly critical of the government’s unwillingness to combat the rebels. In March 2012 the Malian military conducted a coup, splintering into anti- and pro-government factions. The resulting civil conflict resulted in a complete collapse of security in the northern half of the country. By May 2012 the MNLA merged with Ansar Dine, a Taureg Islamist group. Other Islamist groups, such as the The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), quickly rallied to the cause of Taureg rebellion.
The Islamist groups filled the power vacuum and established a de facto state governed by an extremist application of Shariah law. There has been a large influx of “foreign fighters,” many of whom have experience in fighting Jihadist wars in Iraq, Yemen, and Algeria. The Al Qaeda-inspired fighters imposed an extremist form of Sharia, declaring northern Mali an “Islamic” state and precipitating a disaster for the region. They subsequently began destroying Sufi shrines, designated UNESCO world heritage sites, in Timbuktu.
The military coup also resulted in the suspension of Mali’s membership in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). After a short period of political isolation, Mali was readmitted to ECOWAS in October 2012. The domestic political situation stabilized after formation of a coalition government that included ministers close to the leaders of the March coup. However, the situation in the north has progressively worsened. The Islamists have recently gone on the offensive to conquer more territory.
During the events following the coup, both the regional and international communities were vocal in their condemnation of the situation. However, the UN, the AU, and major donors, chiefly France and United States, were slow to endorse early plans for an outside military intervention. The 11 September attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the killing of four American personnel, to include the US Ambassador, was a catalyst for changing attitudes, amplifying the threat posed by continued international inaction on the northern Mali situation.
This incident highlighted the threat posed by ungoverned space increasingly under the control of Al Qaeda and its allies in Africa. The use of northern Mali as a transit point in all directions of the compass for extremists to conduct operations throughout West Africa with impunity is worrying for security officials watching the region. France has significant economic and political interests throughout West Africa. The US is increasingly concerned about specific threats posed by AQIM to American interests. Many of the regional states themselves have long running conflicts with irredentist Islamic groups inspired by, or aligned with, Al Qaeda.
A military campaign to retake northern Mali looks increasingly likely to happen in 2013. Policy makers should be fully aware of the challenges such a course of action presents tactically, strategically, and politically to achieving the objectives of the intervention force. Success will be hard to achieve. The ECOWAS forces could find themselves in a situation much like NATO in Afghanistan, fighting an insurgency in difficult terrain without clear objectives.
Early indications are that ECOWAS is looking at a mission force of approximately 3300 troops to fight alongside an equal number of Malian troops. This is a very small number of troops to control the terrain of such a vast area as Northern Mali. Some observers are comparing this operation with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that is an African-led initiative with donors playing a supporting role, particularly in logistics. Will the ECOWAS and Malian forces have the political and popular support to sustain this mission, potentially with significant casualties?
The Somalia campaign has lasted five years resulting in thousands of casualties for AMISOM forces and Somali civilians. Despite clear military success against Al Shabaab on a macro-level and the creation of political space to reinforce these gains, a dangerous insurgency using asymmetric tactics continues in Somalia. Even the US’ own experience in Afghanistan shows initial success by regular troops against irregulars does not guarantee long-term results.
The troop-contributing countries for the intervention force will face significant challenges. Logistically none of the potential participants can self-sustain their forces outside their own borders. Clearly major donor support will be required. The costs of this support are exacerbated by long distances and lack of infrastructure. Despite being the most developed of the AU’s sub-regional organizations ECOWAS has not conducted a combined military operation since its forces deployed to Liberia, where they remain on duty.
The environment intensifies the tactical problems associated with defeating the rebel groups in northern Mali. The desert is harsh, distances long, water scarce and major cities separated by vulnerable lines of communication. There have been several Taureg rebellions since independence in 1960. Each one was hard fought and only ended once a political accord was reached with the central government.
Any military force will still face difficult fighting in northern Mali. However, as in other insurgencies everything will hinge on a concurrent political effort that addresses the concerns of the Taureg peoples. If their support for the Al Qaeda-aligned groups diminishes, the chances of success translating to long-term gains are higher. It is apparent, after several prolonged periods of civil conflict, that the political differences between northern and southern Mali need resolving. This is not just for the benefit of all Malians but also the region.