The war in Mali: an ‘Afghanistan’ nobody can afford


Nobody could have probably better expressed the declared intent by the West to meet the ongoing challenges in the Sahel and Sahara regions than UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Speaking to the Commons, on Monday, he talked of a “generational struggle” against terrorism, which required the same type of resolve it took to defeat Nazi Germany.

“What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in North Africa," he added.

High stakes

For the West, and especially for Europe, the stakes are indeed high. First and foremost, there are the security risks emanating from the increasingly “ungoverned areas” in the Sahel. Talking about the current Mali crisis, Mr. Cameron warned of the danger of “a new terrorist haven on Europe’s doorstep.” For months now, experts have been warning that if left unchecked, Sahel-based narco-trafficking, arms smuggling and Jihadist activities could unavoidably reach the northern shores of the Mediterranean.

From the point of view of economic interests, the terrorist attack on the south of Algeria gas installation of In Amenas was an unprecedented wakeup call. It dramatically pointed to the vulnerability of North African gas and oil installations on which depends, to a great extent, the energy security of Europe. For the European continent, North African gas supplies constitute a cost-efficient alternative to Russian energy exports. Algeria supplies Europe with 20 percent of its gas needs. In the post-In Amenas environment, security risks have risen in the oil and gas fields in Algeria, Libya, and Egypt and even in Nigeria. At stake, also, are the other natural riches of West Africa: Gold mining provides Mali with 66 percent of its export revenues, not to mention the increasingly coveted uranium resources of Niger.

The war effort

Such considerations aside, French military intervention in Mali was facilitated by a consensus among French military planners that the military mission was ‘doable.” Some have pointed out, however, to French shortcomings in matters of logistics and drone capacity. To remedy to that, several Western nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain and Denmark have promised to transport planes and logistical support. Other nations, such as Britain and the United States, will provide intelligence and counter-terrorism resource backup.

The EU will send a 450-member military training mission starting next month. It will also allocate 50 million Euros for logistical support to the internationally-mandated force (AFISMA) as well as 250 million Euros for development and transition assistance in Mali.

At this stage, nobody is talking about European “boots on the ground” (apart from the military trainers), although there is a 1,500 strong European rapid-deployment force on stand-by for emergency situations. France has not yet asked for such support.

There is also the possibility of the United States providing support in matters of refueling, surveillance and drone-support. But that will be only possible once it sorts out the legal impediments currently preventing its direct involvement in Mali.

And then there is of course “Plan A”: that of the previously-planned ECOWAS force. As part of an “accelerated” version of the initial West African plan, 830 soldiers from countries such as Benin, Togo, Niger and Nigeria, and 170 from Chad, have made it to Mali, where they joined France’s 2,150 strong force. In the aftermath of the France-West Africa summit, held last Saturday in the Cote d’Ivoire, countries such as Benin, Ghana, Senegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast have pledged to contribute troops. African troops are eventually expected to reach the 5,000 mark.
Exit mode

But despite all appearances, the Mali situation is unlikely to become another Afghanistan. Western nations are collectively on an “exit mode.” Nobody, particularly not the United States, is in mood for another prolonged quagmire. The Obama Administration is absolutely not eager to get involved, any time soon, in Afghanistan or Iraq-like experiences. The track record of the United States and Europe in recent military adventures in the Muslim world has not been reassuring. With this disengagement-dominated mindset, it is not surprising that many of the nations of Europe are curiously rushing to deny any intent of contributing “boots on the ground.” Some even seem to be going out of their way to underline their lack of experience in African conflicts. UK foreign secretary William Hague has been hence stressing the limits that Britain has "limited diplomatic resources" in Francophone Africa.

Costs of war

Foreign wars are even less appealing today as Europe and the United States are struggling today to contain their financial woes. Military operations in Mali could be a costly enterprise. For the French, the cost of war in Mali, at the current pace of operations, is estimated at about 400,000 Euros a day. If it is any indication, intervention in Libya did cost the French about 1.2 billion Euros.

According to the Commission of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the cost of operations of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) is expected to be at no less than $500 million. No burden sharing system has been yet devised; and nobody has an idea who will end up footing the bill. The French are however hopeful that international donors will finalize their contributions on Jan. 29 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Can North Africa be another Pakistan?

To complete an Afghanistan scenario, you probably need a North African Pakistan. The domestic social and cultural makeup of North Africa and its geostrategic predispositions do clearly set it apart from Pakistan. Besides, no North African country is eager in any case to assume the burdens Pakistan had to bear in the Afghan conflict. In the face of post Arab-Spring turbulence, North African nations would like in fact no better than to avoid inviting further instability. The Algerian episode has naturally stoked fears of terrorism. Algeria, Libya and even Egypt have been taking a second-look at their border security and at the measures aimed at protecting their hydrocarbon installations. Morocco also announced the dismantling of a new Al-Qaeda terrorist cell involved in recruiting Jihadi fighters for conflicts outside the country.

In the aftermath of the hostage-taking incident of In Amenas, Algerian authorities are likely to feel vindicated by their very cautious approach. Information disclosed by Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal regarding the In Amenas attack, was in many regards disturbing in terms of regional security. The terrorist group was composed of nationals from many countries of the region and beyond. Members of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s “Signers with Blood Battalion” were able to cross into Algeria, from Mali, Niger, Libya, without triggering alarm. If anybody had any doubts, the trans-Saharan Jihadi network is clearly at work. Jihadis have had time to organize and equip themselves. In doing so, they helped themselves in particular from Libyan depots since the fall of Qaddafi.

Still, there are those in Sub-Saharan Africa who still would like the Maghreb countries to participate in the Mali military campaign. "I call on both Mauritania and Algeria to participate along with African and international forces in order to eliminate terrorist forces in the north of Mali," declared Saturday in Abidjan ECOWAS Chairman and Côte d'Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara. But among North African states, there does not seem to be much interest in considering additional support measures. Even the over-flight permissions for French army jets granted by Algeria and Morocco have proven to be domestically controversial. Algeria and Tunisia have already said clearly they will not send troops beyond their borders. Egypt and Libya have even criticized the French military intervention. Furthermore, countries of North Africa are in fact hardly reassured when western powers allude to the “Somali model” as a goal to be achieved in Mali.

Beyond the security problem

The basic trouble with the intervention in Mali is that it is gearing to addressing the immediate threats but not at addressing the myriad of factors at the root of the increasingly untenable situation. After having failed to set up an adequate regional post-war strategy following its military intervention in Libya, Western nations are trying to contain the unintended fallouts of that intervention on the region. But Far-reaching remedial action will need to take into consideration more than that. There will be no durable solution without addressing the long-simmering ethnic grievances as well as the problems of population growth, poverty and unemployment in the larger region of northern, western and Saharan Africa. William Lawrence, North Africa analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said: "A security response is at best a partial response. Until a robust political, humanitarian and economic effort is implemented, the security effort won't solve these problems.”

Without that kind of comprehensive vision, Mr. Cameron will be probably proven right in his recent prediction that the conflict in Mali could last “decades” and not months. Without that vision, also, we will see the proliferation of “failed states” in West Africa and beyond. Not an outcome, which the poor populations of the Sahel and the Sahara can afford.

(Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.)