Mali isn’t Afghanistan, but the theater of operations France has committed itself to is a vast desert area the size of Texas and their opposition are hardened fighters well-used to the conditions there. The French intervention in Mali, backed with logistical and surveillance help by the US and other allies who are members of NATO, isn’t going to be over in weeks any more than the Libyan intervention ever was. Already, the French government have announced plans to more than triple the number of their boots on the ground to around 2,500 troops and have said that they will stay until the job is done. The job being defined as:
“We have one goal. To ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory,” Hollande told a news conference during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.
That sounds like a lengthy job of nation-building to me.
J. Peter Pham, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, writes that bypassing the careful sequencing of steps necessary for any real solutions in favor of precipitous military action risks prolonging and, indeed, exacerbating the crisis in Mali. He explains that the Malian crisis has its roots in the failure of politics.
It needs to be recalled that the conflict began with a separatist uprising in the north, the fourth such rebellion since Mali became independent in 1960, each fueled by the persistent political and economic marginalization of the Tuareg and other northerners by successive governments in the far-off Bamako. The Malian army fared especially poorly against the rebels at the beginning of 2012, sparking complaints by many soldiers that they were being sent into battle without adequate weapons and supplies against insurgents reinforced by battle-hardened ethnic kin who had until very recently served as mercenaries under the late Muammar Gaddafi and brought with them heavy armaments looted from Libya’s unguarded stockpiles following the collapse of his dictatorship. The Malian press took up the rank-and-file military’s criticism of regime incompetence and corruption as did civilian demonstrators, some violent, in the streets of the capital. In March, a protest by low-ranking soldiers spun out of control and, before anyone knew what had happened, the country’s elected government was overthrown.
While international pressure forced the junta to formally hand over power to a civilian transitional authority, in reality the putschists continued to pull the strings as they did last month when they forced out Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra. No wonder the interim government enjoys little support from ordinary Malians who, consequently, have not exactly rushed to enlist under its banner to fight to save their country and even less credibility with secular Tuareg and others in the north who might otherwise be induced to align with it to fight a counterinsurgency against the extremists. A military intervention that shores up the current Malian regime without pushing it to focus on moving towards a restoration of constitutional order will be very limited in what it can achieve.
Further, the 6,000 strong Malian army is mind-numbingly incompetent and guilty of atrocities itself – including a massacre of herders that the perpetrators posted on YouTube. It’s also unclear just how much good reinforcements from other African nations will be.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s top oil producer, which already has peacekeepers in Sudan’s Darfur and is fighting a bloody and difficult insurgency at home against Islamist sect Boko Haram, could struggle to deliver on its troop commitment of 900 men.
One senior government adviser in Nigeria said the Mali deployment was stretching the country’s military.
“The whole thing’s a mess. We don’t have any troops with experience of those extreme conditions, even of how to keep all that sand from ruining your equipment. And we’re facing battle-hardened guys who live in those dunes,” the adviser said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
One friend who knows the region suggested to me that the French and US had hoped to get Algeria to do their heavy lifting in Mali – a land rich in natural resouces including gold and uranium – but that the Algerians refused, occassioning this French intervention. The US so far has kept to the Libyan intervention model of “leading from behind” even so, although if the French presence runs into trouble or serious delays that could easily change. This war has “mission creep” written all over it, especially since it’s in large part a direct consequence of the Libyan one.
Back in early December, the senior US commander in Africa warned about exactly what is happening now.
Army Gen. Carter Ham said that any military intervention done now would likely fail and would set the precarious situation there back “even farther than they are today.”
The African Union and United Nations are currently discussing the funding, troops and other assistance necessary to take back northern Mali from the extremists that took control there earlier this year.
“Negotiation is the best way,” Ham told an audience at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute. “Military intervention may be a necessary component. But if there is to be military intervention it has to be successful, it cannot be done prematurely.”
Right now, the chances are good that we’ll be spelling “quagmire” as “M.a.l.i.” for a goodly time to come.