On 12 October the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution urging African regional troops and the UN to present within 45 days a plan for military intervention in Mali, seven days later Australia won its seat on the Security Council. This highly precarious situation in Mali is one that Australian diplomats will have to understand as the consequences of poor decisions will be far reaching beyond the immediate Sahel region.
Mali is one of the poorest nations on the planet, and its citizens have undoubtedly experienced a traumatic year so far in 2012. And with the recent announcement of the plan to deploy Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) troops into northern Mali under the auspices of the UN it looks like things will become even tougher for the country before it becomes better, if in fact that happens in the long term.
First, let’s take a look at the background of this situation. With the return to Northern Mali of somewhere in the region of two to three thousand angry, highly armed, battle-hardened Tuareg fighters who had been serving under Gadaffi in the previous year’s Libyan conflict, came the beginnings of the present rebellion, beginning in January 2012. The influx of Tuareg fighters was compounded by the lack of action on behalf of the Mali government to counter the problems they were causing. The uprising by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Tuareg group Ansar Dine began with the killing of many government soldiers in a series of battles, which also led to a humanitarian crises as tens of thousands of civilians fled the fighting. As the fighting intensified, the Malian military became increasingly incensed at what they perceived as a lack of political will to end the rebellion and a lack of sufficient munitions, supplies and equipment to drive it back. Thus on 21 March a military-led mutiny at these conditions culminated in the resignation of President Amadou Toumani Touré and the temporary placement of a military Captain as the nation’s leader.
If this wasn’t enough, the appearance of elements of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and increasing numbers of foreign Islamist fighters in northern Mali created unease amongst observers that the region was in danger of becoming a new safe-haven for Al-Qaeda where fighters could train and equip, ready for jihad in the wider Sahel region. The joint declaration of an ‘Islamic state of Azawad’ by the MNLA and Ansar Dine began to reinforce this position.
AQIM make a powerful ally for the MNLA and Ansar Dine, primarily due to their economic power which has been accumulated from kidnapping, trafficking cocaine, hashish and cigarettes across Western and Northern Africa, but also due to the volume of military hardware they have captured from fleeing Malian forces including American military vehicles and satellite communications technology, as well as abandoned stores of artillery, rocket launchers and large stocks of small arms and ammunition. All of these factors have led to AQIM in coordination with MNLA, Ansar Dine and other allies, having direct influence of approximately 816,000 square kilometres of territory, spreading across, south eastern Algeria, north western Niger, eastern Mauritania and northern Mali.
The potential pitfalls of intervention
In light of the clearly worrying situation in Mali, there has been rapidly expanding international support for intervention in Mali, with the United States, the European Union, including France (for historical reasons) at the spearhead and most notably the UN Security Council all voicing support for placing troops on the ground to stabilise the country. The UN passed a resolution on 12 October to press Western African states to speed up the process of providing an international military intervention. This resolution has given the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in coordination with ECOWAS 45 days to submit a viable plan of action. The appetite of the world’s major military powers to provide troops to this operation is clearly circumspect, with Afghanistan drawdown to begin in 2014, war weary nations such as the US, UK and Australia do not want to engage in another costly overseas operation. However, with somewhere in the region of 3500 ECOWAS troops on standby to be deployed, and with significant logistical support from the US and France, there is a ready-made force for deployment.
With no action likely to take place before early 2013, this gives time for thought and preparation for those on all sides of the situation.
Firstly, if the intervention force goes into Mali understaffed, equipped and motivated, then there is the danger that these forces will face a determined adversary who is well equipped, battle hardened and is likely to overwhelm them. Of greater concern is that this scenario will act as a magnet for would be international jihadist fighters looking to prove themselves in battle, as has been seen within Syria in recent months. Indeed there have already been reports emerging from northern Mali of an influx of some 150 or more foreign fighters into the region in the wake of the UN announcement. This outcome could well lead to re-enforcing the AQIM safe-haven that has already grown, except this time with an operational training ground for practising combat skills.
On the other hand, if ECOWAS go in too hard, there is a distinct possibility that the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population would be lost, due to the danger of high civilian casualties, the destruction of livelihoods and the lack of access to food and water resources. The reaction of AQIM and its partners could well be to disperse into neighbouring Sahelian countries, regroup and fight a guerrilla type campaign in a terrain that they are highly experienced of operating in. It’s important to remember that borders are highly porous in this part of the world so the potential for ‘overspill’ into other regions are high in this scenario. Whilst not landlocked with Mali, Nigeria is a ‘near neighbour’ and for many international nations, most prominently the UK, represents a key strategic provider of oil and trade. The danger of the Salafist jihadist group Boko Harem, who operate in northern Nigeria, becoming involved has significant regional security implications.
Again within this reasoning it is possible to see that AQIM would still have the ability to operate within the region, as they use their financial resource to gain popular support amongst a local population who are battle weary, in need of resources and importantly view ECOWAS with a high degree of suspicion as supporters of the deposed Malian leadership.
With Australia’s new position on the Security Council won and the dust settling on the euphoria of this success, the hard work now begins. Understanding the complex dynamics at play in far flung regions of the world, which if mishandled have the potential to have global impact has to now a central element of Australia’s foreign policy. Ultimately, the decision and influence that Australia has to provide will demand an appreciation of the resurgence of an Al-Qaeda affiliate which is growing in influence, power and geographical reach, with the price that has to be paid in human life.
Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Magharebia.