The uncertain endgame of the war in Mali

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

An upbeat narrative has permeated most military progress reports about French military intervention in Mali. Five weeks after the start of their military campaign, the French believe they have already achieved about “70% of the set-objectives”. They have indeed retaken the cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Then, with the help of Chadian and Malian armies, their expeditionary forces have dealt heavy blows to Jihadist positions in the Ifoghas and Timetrine regions, north east of Mali. Two of Al-Qaida’s leaders in the region, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, have been reportedly killed in the fighting. Compared to the relatively limited casualties in the French expeditionary force, hundreds are said to have been killed in the ranks of Ansar al-Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJAW) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). French columnist Ivan Rioufol goes as far to say the French are “conducting an exemplary war.” Beyond arguing about the “exemplariness” of this war (or any war), is there reason to believe there is a clear endgame in sight here?

Quagmire syndrome

The swift advances have led some analysts to talk since January about the war’s unfolding endgame. Others have warned that the war in Mali was far from over and speculated that the military intervention might drag France into some sort of “Sahel quagmire”.

Quick military victories alone will not provide an endgame for the Sahel’s widening arc of crisis

Oussama Romdhani

Public opinion trends have also fluctuated. In the first week of February, the swift military victories and the warm welcome given in Mali to President Francois Hollande have boosted French public opinion support for the war to a high 73%. By the end of February, however, the level of support dropped to 60% --with women, young people, low-income categories and right-wing sympathizers showing even less support for the military campaign than the rest of the population.

Worried that the “quagmire syndrome” could start eroding public support for the war, French leaders have tried in recent weeks to reassure the public that their forces will start withdrawing from Mali, in the next coming weeks. President Hollande announced, on March 6, a drawdown of French soldiers Mali by early April. His minister of defense made similar announcements. He explained: “we want to avoid a quagmire in Mali”.

Trying to placate rightwing and extreme-rightwing criticism, French officials also stressed the relevance of the war to France’s immediate security concerns. Minister of defense Jean-Yves Le Drian pointed out that “what is at stake is our own security. This fact is all-the-more obvious as we move up north and discover in the Iforghas mountains arms caches including tons of weapons and ready-to-use explosives.”

French leaders will continue paying attention to the “home front”. But unlike in Afghanistan, they will not be able to bail out from Mali once things get too complicated. Whatever their military or political constraints, the French will have to live with the fact that they are the indispensable actors of the current war. Their exit-strategy could critically determine the shape of the post-war Mali and the wider Sahel region. “Once engaged in a war, you have to finish it correctly and not try get out as soon as possible”, says general Vincent Desportes, professor at “Sciences-Po” in Paris.

The French have committed themselves, militarily, to “re-establishing the sovereignty” of the central Mali government over all of its territory. The withdrawal of French troops will only be partial and gradual. It will be premised on the replacement of most of the 4,000 French soldiers with the 8,000 African soldiers of the International Support Mission to Mali (MISMA).

Achilles’ heel

The changing of the guard has predictably been slower (and more difficult to finance) than the French would have liked it to be. Combat-readiness of the 12 African contingents is still lacking. The only possible exception, till now, are Chadian soldiers (who have incidentally suffered the heaviest toll in terms of human casualties). The Malian army itself is ill-equipped and inadequately trained. It also seems to lack the professional discipline that would allow it to avoid accusations of war abuses. The state of un-readiness of African “boots on the ground” has prompted Dominique Moisi, senior advisor at the French think-tank “IFRI”, to conclude: “There is no African army that is able to replace French forces. That is undoubtedly the Achilles’ heel of French intervention.”

Financing MISMA operations is also still in limbo. A donors’ conference, held at the end of January in Addis Ababa, had received pledges of $ 455 million. But at the end February, Alassane Ouattara, president of Cote D’Ivoire and chairman the Economic Community of African states (ECOWAS), was still asking the donors to fulfill their pledges. His minister of foreign affairs eventually upped the estimated of the “global financing” cost of the African force in Mali to nearly $ 1 billion. In the meanwhile, France has had to bear most of the financial burden of the military intervention (specifically that of its own 4,000 soldiers and the 2,000 Chadian contingent). In the first 45 days of the war, the cost incurred by French-taxpayers from the war in Mali was estimated at 100 million Euros.

Transforming MISMA into an U.N.-led and financed operation will eventually relieve France from the pressure of being the main financier of the war. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius announced on Tuesday that the United Nations will vote by next April on a resolution authorizing a new peacekeeping operation in Mali. If things go as planned, a new 10,000 man-strong force will be deployed by early July, under the U.N. flag.

The particular timing of the deployment is meant to help boost of holding elections in Mali, which are one of the key political objectives of the war-plan. “The end of our mission will have to coincide with the political solution in Mali”, said Le Drian. According to the latter, that means holding presidential elections (next July) and launching a process of “dialogue and reconciliation”.

Election « fetish »

But logistical and security problems might render the July deadline for the elections difficult to reach. Already, some experts are suggesting a three-month delay. Others are doubtful that the north of Mali could be stabilized on time for elections.

There are also more fundamental reservations about the elections. The complex ethnic and tribal legacies of the conflict in Mali will not be erased by the July vote, even if the elections take place on time. In situations of civil strife, majority-based electoral decisions do not necessarily bring definitive solutions. Mark Quarterman, Director of Research for the Enough Project (“to end genocide and crimes against humanity”), warns against succumbing to the “election fetish” saying that “elections, under the current system, could solidify the hold of the current ruling group”.

The vote cannot by itself address Tuareg grievances which gave birth to a full-fledged insurgency since 2011. The Tuareg-based Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) has been supportive of the French campaign but has also started distributing its own ID’s for travellers to northern Mali. Beyond elections, there is need for negotiations over peace arrangements, reconciliation and decentralized government schemes. The Bamako government will need the support of regional and international arbiters.

A wider problem

The Mali problem is also a regional and continental problem. Ali Zaoui, Algerian regional security expert, thinks the “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has become today a pan African-Al-Qaeda”. The ripple circles of terror and instability, which have emanated from Mali, radiate today though many countries of the region, including Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. In Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, the threats are compounded by the fact that these nations are, “countries without borders”, as described recently by U.N. special envoy to the Sahel, Romano Prodi. Further north, the dunes of the desert will not prevent the perils of insecurity and terrorism from spreading to the countries of the Maghreb. The attack by an AQIM-spinoff group against the In Eminas gas plant in Algeria has helped convince the U.S. to deploy surveillance drones in the region. The same way the possible threat to uranium mines, in neighbouring Niger, has played an important role convincing the French to intervene in Mali in the first place.

The endgame in Mali will have to mean greater involvement of the international community, despite its current reluctance. Stimson Center president, Ellen Laipson, and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, believe “the turmoil in the Sahel is shaping up to be a long-playing conflict that will end well only with the help of African regional organizations, Western nations, nongovernmental groups, and the United Nations providing a mix of military, diplomatic and economic assistance”.

It remains to be seen, however, what kind of “mix” will be eventually provided to address the complex host of problems having to do with terrorism and criminal activity. But also with bad governance, mismanagement of resources, marginalization of whole groups of the population, and neglect long-simmering conflicts. Resolution of the problems at hand will also hinge on the West’s perception of its strategic interests in Africa and its willingness to foot the bill for expensive long-term solutions. Because, quick military victories will not, by themselves, provide an endgame for the Sahel’s widening arc of crisis.

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. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently 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.