The conflict in Mali that has been making headlines this week has been brewing for many months now. As I pointed out back in October last year, all signs were that an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) force would be deployed into Mali to repel Islamist fighters in the north of the country early in 2013. Much of the international community appeared highly reluctant to become actively embroiled in the fight, being happy to back a UN mission to the country but reluctant to commit troops, aircraft and vehicles to the approaching engagement.
So what has taken many by surprise has been the sudden rapidity of France’s whole-hearted engagement in the conflict, throwing their weight into Mali in a way that wasn’t expected. Why did this happen and what are the consequences for Mali?
In fact, the script has been prepared for some time for the intervention in Mali. The UN passed a resolution in October requesting West African states under the ECOWAS banner to speed up the process of providing a plan for military intervention. It seemed that there was ready-made force of 3500 ECOWAS troops available for deployment, backed by logistical support from the US and France. However, as the planning became more intense, it was felt that the Malian forces, whom ECOWAS would be supporting, would require increased training and strengthening and the ECOWAS force wouldn’t be ready for deployment until September 2013.
This was an opportunity not to be missed by the various forces holding Northern Mali and last week the Ansar Dine group began pushing further south, seizing the strategically important town of Konna. This demonstrated two things: firstly, the Malian Army had neither the will nor the support to repel the Islamists, and secondly, as Konna is located around 400 kilometres northeast of the capital city, Bamako, there was the distinct probability that the insurgents would arrive at the capital city in a very short time-scale. Plans for a major offensive, organised and coordinated by the local al Qaeda franchise, had been detected by French intelligence services, which was confirmed when a large convoy of vehicles were seen heading towards the strategic town of Mopti. The consequence of the potential invasion of the capital city and control of the entire country by Islamists was the final straw for the international community and for France especially; it has around 6,000 expats still living in the country.
Dioncounda Traore, Mali’s interim president, wrote to both UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and French President Francois Hollande requesting urgent assistance last Thursday. By Friday the French had entered the conflict, providing air support for Malian troops, conducting bombing missions and sending a force of approximately 550 French troops from neighbouring bases. The prospect of a safehaven for Islamist groups was something that was deemed too much for Hollande who, in a brief television statement on Friday, stated that he had deployed French forces to stop Mali from becoming a terrorist base on Europe’s doorstep.
There are three key objectives for the French intervention: first, to stop the offensive by the Islamist groups; second, to secure the country; and third, to prepare the ground for the deployment of African ECOWAS troops. The reasons for and the objectives of the French intervention in Mali are quite clear, however, it’s difficult to see how this intervention can be kept short, rather than lasting months or even years. While the Islamists have been repelled for the moment, their complete removal will be extremely difficult in a part of the country where the enemy forces will be dispersed widely—it is larger than Afghanistan—and which suits those who know the terrain well. One would imagine that the responsibility for this part of the operation will largely fall on the Malian and ECOWAS forces, but with French support. Furthermore, the difficulties at the heart of Mali’s problems will take some time to solve; a disillusioned military, a fragile political situation and a population with little access to sustainable economies and resources.
It’s also worth noting that the French, Malian and ECOWAS troops face a motivated, well-equipped enemy who aren’t showing any indication that they’ll go without a fight. On Monday the rebels launched a counter offensive seizing Diabaly, a town in the West of the country, 400km north of the capital. The leadership of various factions within the Islamists have also vowed to strike ‘at the heart’ of France. Abou Dardar of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) stated that, ‘France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France.’ However, their capacity to do so is unproven.
Once the fighting is over, the difficult longer-term problems of a political, military and social nature will have to be addressed. When the UN Security Council sits to discuss these issues, they will need a comprehensive plan which considers what comes after the military stabilisation of the country, otherwise the Islamist issue could well re-emerge again at a later date.
France’s intervention has been backed by the European Union and NATO, and there are various other Western nations involved. The UK has provided strategic airlift capability, and may also provide military personnel to assist in training troops. Denmark and the US have provided logistical support, and other European nations are considering how to assist. Germany is considering providing logistical, medical or humanitarian aid. Canada will also send a military transport aircraft to assist in the transport of equipment.
The US has provided in-flight refuelling capability for the French Air Force airstrikes and will potentially send drones to the country to assist as well. Interestingly, over the past four years the US has spent somewhere between $520–$600 million in an effort to combat Islamist insurgency in the region without engaging in war fighting, a portion of this being spent on training the Malian Army and providing equipment. However, US law restricts the provision of direct military assistance to Mali because its democratically-elected President was ousted in the coup of March 2012. This led to special forces troops and military aid being withdrawn.
Pending the outcome of the UNSC, the indications are that Australia will have some form of involvement. Foreign Minister Bob Carr has been quoted as saying, ‘We’re looking at facilitating the earlier deployment of the African force…If the constraints on an earlier deployment are a matter of funding or equipment, Australia could potentially assist in conjunction with other UN member states.’ As we near the close of operations in Afghanistan and there is a general reluctance to become involved in other international engagements, there is a case that Australia should provide some form of logistical support to the international effort. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it should have personnel actively engaged in the fighting, but a support role might be appropriate.
This battle is taking place in order to counter international terrorism, which is an issue which has and does affect Australia. Left unattended, Mali had the prospect of allowing terrorist ideology and training a place to fester. As a member of the UNSC, Australia should be seen aiding efforts to eradicate such safehavens and ensuring that the intervention is successful as it can be—now the line has been crossed it’s too late to turn back.
Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image source EMA, courtesy of Ministère de la Défense.