War and peace in the shifting sands of Mali

Oussama Romdhani
Oussama Romdhani
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The Dec. 20 resolution, which constituted a compromise between conflicting international and regional positions, authorized “the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) for an initial period of one year”. It listed also several political and military objectives that have to be met before any military action in Northern Mali could to be undertaken. The U.N. resolution did not specify how the international mission will be funded or how the force will be composed. The Economic Community of Western African States, (ECOWAS) has pledged to supply 3,300 soldiers. It remains to be seen also if non-ECOWAS countries, such as Chad and Mauritania, will contribute more desert-ready troops. The financing of the operation, expected to exceed $200 million, is established on “a voluntary” basis.

What’s at stake today is more than just the territorial integrity of Mali. French Defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, “The integrity of Mali is essential not only for the security of that country but also for that of France and Europe.” His views echo security fears in Europe according to which Northern Mali could become a hub for terrorist and trafficking activities. Interpol estimates in fact that traffickers make more than $2 billion (Dh7.3 billion) annually by funneling drugs to the Mediterranean coast and on to Europe. France, in particular, has been stung by hostage-taking, which has al-Qaeda-affiliated groups earn more than $100 million since 2003.

On the political track, resolution 2085 urged the current authorities of Mali to finalize a “transitional roadmap”, which includes the holding of presidential and legislative elections by April 2013. For many of the outside parties involved in Mali, a complicating factor is the political role still played by the Military and in particular by the March coup leader Army Captain Amadou Sanogo. German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said recently, “One thing is clear: our offers of help come with the condition that the process of restoring constitutional order in Mali be conducted credibly.”

The resolution also called for “a credible framework for negotiations with all parties in the north of Mali who have cut off all ties to terrorist organizations.” Among the various warring parties in Mali, the resolution named Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and “associated groups including” the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). It did not name the two other main warring factions: the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and “Ansar Al Dine” (Defenders of the Faith). If the former is known for its opposition to Al Qaida and its shift away from all separatist claims, the latter has been suspected of AQIM-links.

But for months now, Algerian authorities have been coaxing Iyad Ag Gali, head of “Ansar Al Dine”, to distance himself from the AQIM and MUJAO jihadists. Speaking after the signing of an agreement with “Ansar Al Dine”, a day after the adoption of resolution 2085, an MNLA spokesman seemed hopeful but not yet totally convinced. Both groups, he said, will be able to work together “once Ansar Al Dine steers away from other extremist groups present in the region.”

There has been recently a gradual “re-branding” of “Ansar Al Dine”, so to include it into a political process which should end with an arrangement between this group and the central government. There was hence no more talk of foreign Jihadis in control of the organization. Interim President Dioncounda Traore of Mali has described “Ansar Al Dine” fighters as “mainly made up of our fellow countrymen.” The Paris-based Jeune Afrique recently noted that despite its still “ambiguous” ties to Al Qaida, “Ansar-Al Dine” has “stopped its implementation of the Shariah in order to start negotiations with the Bamako government.”

There were obvious pragmatic considerations for trying to re-brand “Ansar Al Dine” and woo it away from the “Al Qaida” fold. The organization has the largest number of fighters among all rebel groups. And it is hoped that its Malian members would not want to see armed conflict destroy their home-towns and properties. Trying to keep them out from the lineup of enemy forces, made sense militarily. Western diplomatic and military observers see the 3,300 ECOWACS force as no match to an “Ansar Al Dine”- Al Qaida coalition which could bring together an aggressive 10,000 to 15,000-man force. It also meant reducing the risk of “blowback” for Algeria and other countries. Talking about the situation in Mali, Mauritanian national assembly president Messaoud Ould Boulkheir said: "If this volcano awakens, it will dump incandescent ashes over its neighbors,"

For the French, who will lead the support operations, including the training of Malian and African troops, the task is more complicated than for other European and American partners. The French government has to sell its involvement, domestically, at a time when seven of its citizens are held hostages in the Sahel by AQIM or allied groups.

Resolution 2085 has implicitly drawn new rules of engagement. The new resolution “changes everything”, said French President François Hollande. The line-up of the two opposite camps was clearly defined. French strategic analyst Jean-Bernard Pinatel said, “the enemy is not the Tuaregs of the MNLA or Ansar Al Dine... But the two radical Islamic and mafia-like organizations AQIM and MUJAO”.

Now, according to French Defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, military intervention could take place before next July. But other military planners do not see it happening before next autumn. Better still, according to Western diplomats, including Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the U.N., “the question is even whether the military operation will take place.” To avoid war international and regional powers will have to ensure the return of loyalist troops to the barracks of northern Mali without armed intervention. And that’s a long shot.

Meeting that objective will depend on the ability of the international community to re-build the Malian defense forces into a credible fighting army that is backed by a dissuasive regional force and by western logistical and aerial support. There are those in the West and in Africa who say they would have preferred a shorter timeline and a “massive and decisive intervention”. But all outside parties involved in the Mali crisis seem to accept the old Roman adage. “If you wish for peace, prepare for war,” They are therefore willing to give the negotiated settlement a chance, provided the tracks of military and political engagement in Mali do not get overwhelmed by the shifting sands of the Sahel.

(Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian member of government. He is today an international media analyst.)

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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