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Assessment of the Efficacy of the French Military Intervention in the Northern Mali Conflict

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Assessment of the Efficacy of the French Military Intervention in the Northern Mali Conflict

Greg Olsen

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

In January 2012, an insurgency broke out in the Azawad region of northern Mali, as the Tuareg’s fought for an independent or at least autonomous homeland.  The Northern Mali Conflict began as a classic example of an ethnic conflict in a weak state[1].  However, the chaotic conflict enabled multiple domestic and transnational Islamist insurgent groups to enter it in the summer of 2012. By fall 2012, Mali was partitioned between multiple factions.  But in January 2013, the conflict entered a new phase towards either an Islamist victory or a Hobbesian conflict between multiple groups in a failed state[2].  In likely response to the United Nations (UN) Security Council authorizing an Economic Community of West African States military intervention in Mali in December 2012 (African-led International Support Mission to Mali aka AFISMA), Islamist insurgents launched an offensive which threatened to defeat the central government of Mali and capture the capital of Bamako.  Due to a slow response from other African regional security partners and intergovernmental organizations, the French government determined that it had to intervene.

Domestic political considerations in France were, as always, part of the calculus of intervention.  Mali was an opportunity for French President Francois Hollande to improve his popularity, which had been in decline from the moment he took office, but there were also real security concerns around transnational terrorism justifying intervention.  Hollande announced on January 11, 2013, the following three objectives for the intervention: (1) stop terrorist aggression, (2) protect French nationals, and (3) restore territorial integrity to Mali.  The operation would be limited in duration and not an open-ended commitment to occupation or nation-building.

French operations began with the insertion of special operations forces and an air offensive.  At the same time, ground forces were moved into theater from neighboring states and France with the help of other nations in transport, aerial refueling, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  Major ground operations commenced on January 15.  In total, France deployed approximately 4,000 troops to the conflict and had achieved the initial three military objectives by February. Withdrawal was announced on March 8.  According to a RAND Corporation study, Operation Serval was a high-risk operation, because it involved a small expeditionary force waging maneuver warfare with low logistical support and consisted of platoons and companies pulled from multiple units.  But in the end, Operation Serval demonstrated the viability of a force pieced together at the sub-battalion level into a competent fighting force suited for counterinsurgency warfare[3].  This piecemeal approach to deployment is a very different model than expeditionary deployment by the U.S. Marine Corps which deploys a complete combined arms unit around a reinforced division, brigade, or battalion, depending on the mission.

French military operations in Mali did not end with Operation Serval.  In April 2013, the UN Security Council authorized a Chapter VII (i.e., peace enforcement) mission, Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali aka MINUSMA.  Additionally, UN Security Council resolution 2100 authorized “French troops, within the limits of their capacities and areas of deployment, to use all necessary means…to intervene in support of elements of MINUSMA when under imminent and serious threat[4].”  As a practical matter, France’s troops became the chief counter-terrorism arm of MINUSMA.  

After announced withdrawal, France relabeled its intervention to Operation Barkhane (approximately 3,000 troops deployed) and spanned the G5 Sahel in the countries of Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Mali.  This continued deployment is a repeated pattern seen in civil wars.  With no peace to keep, the UN relies on a parallel “green helmet” force alongside “blue helmet” peacekeepers to maintain security and assist in maintaining order in a conflict zone (e.g., Unified Task Force aka UNITAF in Somalia, the Australian led International Force East Timor aka INTERFET in East Timor).  

MINUSMA followed the standard liberal peacebuilding playbook: disarmament, demobilization, reinsertion of combatants; security sector reform; some form of “truth and reconciliation commission;” constitutional democratic governance; re-establishment of state sovereignty over the territory; and rebuilding civil society.  The UN playbook of liberal peacebuilding was a qualified success in both Cambodia[5] and East Timor[6], where the UN supervised the withdrawal of foreign armies (Vietnam and Indonesia respectively) and was in effect the civilian administration and military.  The UN successfully ran free elections to bring a new democratically elected government into power.  

From a conventional military perspective, Operation Serval was a success, routing multiple irregular forces on the battlefield and securing the central government and French nationals in Mali in a month-long campaign.  It also demonstrated the viability of sub-battalion-level deployment of expeditionary units.  However, Operation Serval did not address any of the underlying state weakness that enabled the insurgency in the first place.  Instead, the French Army has become embroiled in a “forever war” as the UN attempts to build a liberal state from a failed state, under very different circumstances from their previous successes in Cambodia and East Timor.

In Mali, multiple non-state actors—various coalitions of Tuareg clans, and multiple domestic and transnational Islamist insurgent groups—pose a threat to the incumbent government.  The French are in a sense captive to a UN playbook that has worked in cases dissimilar to the situation in Mali.  According to the opportunity model of civil war, it is state capacity, not the redress of grievances, that cause civil wars.  There is an inverted U-shaped relationship between government and civil war.  Strong autocracies don’t have civil wars and strong democracies don’t have civil wars[7].  It is the middle ground of anocracies that have wars, because they are weak institutionally.  This weakness explains the difficulty that post-colonial states have in making transitions from autocracy to multi-party democracy[8], and explains the durability of rebel victories[9].  Because the UN is transitioning an autocracy, Mali will be vulnerable.  Therefore, France and any multilateral partners whom they enlist to support them are set up as the de facto guarantor of security in Mali for a long time to come.

End Notes

[1] Hironaka, A. (2005). Neverending Wars: The International Community, Weak States, and the Perpetuation of Civil War. (pp. 80-86) Cambridge: Harvard University.

[2] Kraxberger, B. M. (2007). Failed States: Temporary Obstacles to Democratic Diffusion or Fundamental Holes in the World Political Map?. Third World Quarterly 28(6):1055-1071.

[3] Shurkin, M. (2014). France’s War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

[4] United Nations Security Council (2013, April 25). Resolution 2100. Retrieved 7 April 2013 from http://unscr.com/en/resolutions/doc/2100

[5] Doyle, M. W. and Suzuki, A. (1995). Transitional Authority in Cambodia. In The United Nations and Civil Wars. Weiss, T. G., ed. (pp. 127-149). Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

[6] Howard, L. M. (2008). UN Peacekeeping in Civil Wars. (pp. 260-298) Cambridge: Cambridge University.

[7] Bates, R. H. (2008). State Failure. Annual Review of Political Science 11:1-12.

[8] Huntington, S. P. (1968). Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven: Yale University.

[9] Toft, M. D. (2010). Securing the Peace: The Durable Settlement of Civil Wars. Princeton: Princeton University.

 

 

About the Author(s)

Greg Olsen is a cyber security professional and postgraduate researcher at University of Leicester doing his PhD on peacekeeping and civil wars.  He can be found on Twitter at @gtotango.

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First, from the third paragraph from the bottom of our article above:

"MINUSMA followed the standard liberal peacebuilding playbook: disarmament, demobilization, reinsertion of combatants; security sector reform; some form of “truth and reconciliation commission;” constitutional democratic governance; re-establishment of state sovereignty over the territory; and rebuilding civil society.

Next, from the concluding paragraph of our such article:

"According to the opportunity model of civil war, it is state capacity, not the redress of grievances, that cause civil wars.  There is an inverted U-shaped relationship between government and civil war.  Strong autocracies don’t have civil wars and strong democracies don’t have civil wars.  It is the middle ground of anocracies that have wars, because they are weak institutionally.  This weakness explains the difficulty that post-colonial states have in making transitions from autocracy to multi-party democracy, and explains the durability of rebel victories."

Given (a) this discussion of the use of the "standard liberal peacebuilding" model (based on a Western "universalistic" theory?) and (b) this suggestion of state capacity, rather than grievance, as the "root cause" of  civil wars.  In this regard, let us look to what the "liberal peacebuilding playbook/model" (1) seems to look like and (2) be based upon: 

"Based on universalistic thought, those who advocate liberal peacebuilding believe its universal applicability to build a lasting peace. The general transference of the liberal peace to any post-conflict peacebuilding has been promoted as a universal framework. Under the banner of “peace-as-governance”, that is to say, the mixture of institutional regulation and liberal freedoms, it is assumed that the achievement of stable peace relies on the reform of comprehensive frameworks for social, economic, political and cultural regulation and governance by external and internal actors working toward the same universal framework envisaged by the liberal peace. Stated otherwise, in liberal peacebuilding, peace is assumed by academics as well as policymakers or practitioners to be arising by transplanting western models of social, political, and economic institutions as universal method necessary for the permanent, liberal-economic and political governance into conflict-shattered states. ...

Another critique of liberal peacebuilding along with the top-down approaches is the romanticisation of the local, that is to say, the idea that local actors, cultures and practices are inferior and an obstacle to the project of liberal and rational governance and it has invited the charges of ethnocentrism by the Western powerful actor. Liberal peacebuilding itself is critiqued as globally hegemonic project, wherein post-conflict societies are brought into conformity with the international system’s prevailing standards of domestic governance or standards that frame how states should organize themselves internally despite the diversity and uniqueness of each post-conflict circumstance. Rather than representing local preferences and needs, the process of liberal peacebuilding is seen as the promotion or imposition of an external, hegemonic agenda that seeks to integrate peripheral areas into global norms of politics and economics, which provides powerful international actors with self-righteousness of direct or subtle forms of interventions and colonialism.

Liberal peacebuilding is perceived to represent the maintenance of existing political and economic hierarchies at the local, national, and global levels. Liberal peacebuilding is a sort of linear model of peacebuilding approach. Founded upon the belief in liberal peace as the absolute framework that underpins universally stable peace, liberal peacebuilding has been implemented as an approach to bring about a lasting peace across different contexts of post-conflict societies. Though conflict is a complex and non-linear phenomenon, any form of post-conflict society would converge into a sustainable and stable peace monolithically when democratic governance, human right, market-economy, and centralized government system are imported."

https://www.davidpublisher.org/Public/uploads/Contribute/59cf397027d35.pdf

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

Hans Morgenthau noted, in his 1967 "To Intervene or Not to Intervene," that differing "universalistic thought" playbooks/models stood as the basis for the Old Cold War:

"The United States and the Soviet Union face each other not only as two great powers which in the traditional ways compete for advantage. They also face each other as the fountainheads of two hostile and incompatible ideologies, systems of government and ways of life, each trying to expand the reach of its respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other." 

This being the case, then would we still believe -- for example if the Soviets/the communists had won the Old Cold War and thereafter implemented their universalistic "Soviet/communist peacebuilding playbook/model" throughout the world -- that: 

a.  The civil wars that occurred thereafter (and thereby?); these, in fact, were: 

b.  The result of "inadequate state capacity;" this, rather than "grievance?"

(Herein, this "grievance" resulting from a -- highly understandable -- desire to, in this case, [a] NOT be transformed more along alien and profane Soviet/communist political, economic, social and value lines and to [b] NOT be incorporated into the Soviet/the communist sphere of power, influence and control?)

Note:  If your answer to the question above is that "grievance" -- rather than "inadequate state capacity" -- is the, obvious, "root cause" of these post-Cold War civil wars, then what is your prescriptive "fix" for the U.S./the West today?