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Conflict in Mali and French Intervention

Melissa M. Cyrill is Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • February 08, 2013

    The recent French intervention in Mali comes almost after a year of turmoil in the country, which saw the complete breakdown of its democratic system, an army coup in the capital, and a virtual Islamist takeover of the vast northern part of the country known for its difficult desert terrain. Nevertheless, these developments went largely unnoticed though the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) pressed for a United Nations (UN) mandate for a military intervention that was finally approved for September 2013 after months of negotiations. In the meantime, respective rebel and jihadist groups waged a complex yet effective war across the Sahel against government forces.

    Specific to Mali, foreign Islamist and ethnic rebel groups, having been replenished by the arms and logistical support available after the downfall of Gaddafi and the end of the intervention in Libya, were able to nullify the Malian army, taking advantage of the political instability and volatility. January 2013 eventually saw the separatist rebels rapidly heading southwards towards the capital, leaving behind the crumbling Malian forces in their wake. The Islamist separatist group Ansar Dine announced the suspension of a ceasefire agreed in December 2012 and steadily captured the town of Konna in central Mali from governmental control. This finally led to the Malian President requesting French help to counter the rebels, followed by the UN endorsing the swift deployment of an international force to Mali.1 Thus, whilst the French intervention raised certain questions regarding its motivation and duration, it was endorsed by the Malian public and government as necessary to tackle the dangerously deepening hold of the rebel groups. Furthermore, the UN observers as well as the French and Malian troops were forced to confront the fact that the strength of the jihadist groups in Mali had been clearly underestimated by the UN Security Council (UNSC) and other agency monitors.

    The West African nation has long been a victim to complex problems from poverty and drought to intense corruption and political instability. Adding to its challenges have been the rebel groups keen to acquire any capital left in the mix. Five main Islamist groups operate in the area—Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Signed-in-Blood Battalion, and the Islamic Movement for Azawad (IMA). Among their various goals is an intent to impose Sharia law across Mali and destroy Sufi shrines and areas of worship, spread jihad to West Africa and internationalise the Islamist agenda, and secure the liberation of Malians from the French colonial legacy.2

    In addition to the Islamist extremists are the ethnic rebels, in particular, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) that is fighting specifically for the rights of Mali’s minority Tuareg community. Several Malian Tuareg had joined Gaddafi’s army to end intra-tribal conflicts and, following his overthrow in 2011, they returned to Mali adding to the ranks of the MNLA as it orchestrated an uprising against the Malian forces in convenient collusion with the Islamists. The returning Tuareg had brought with them weapons such as surface-to-air missiles3 along with their boots on the ground. By April 2012, MNLA-led fighters had completely overpowered the army and jointly declared with the Ansar Dine that the north was an independent state named Azawad.4 However, the Islamist Ansar Dine and Mujao soon turned against the MNLA and drove its forces out of the main northern towns. This is why the MNLA favoured the French military intervention in the hope that it could regain its northern footing. Adding to this conflict-fraught situation is the junta leader —Captain Amadou Sanogo—who staged a coup in early 2012 but then stepped aside to cede power to the former speaker of Mali’s National Assembly, Dioncounda Traore, who became the interim President but was later attacked brutally by those who were against him retaining the presidency for 12 months as desired by ECOWAS.

    Given such a tumultuous situation in the country, the foremost task of the French-led intervention was to prevent the entire Malian state from disintegrating under the rebel offensive, which could have further led to portent repercussions for Mali’s neighbours Niger, Algeria and Mauritania, threatening the stability of democratic structures across the region. Two weeks into January, the militant Islamists in Mali had seized control of the western town of Diabaly, about 150 km from Segou and the country’s economic heartland5, with the capital, Bamako, just days away. An unfettered campaign by the armed groups would have ensured the absolute collapse of the West African state and led to the successful export of revolutionary jihadis, sending out the worst possible message to the rest of the continent and possibly sabotaging the long-term development and political security of countries from Senegal to Niger. Moreover, the possible threat posed to Europe’s security if Mali became a new safe haven for radical terrorist groups was too alarming to dismiss. It was this primary concern that confronted the French President Francois Hollande—a matter of France’s own national security along with an opportunity to buffer its global credentials with a humanitarian and development agenda. An immediate concern also arose from the risks faced by 6,000 French citizens in Mali itself along with embassies, businesses and private citizens across North Africa. Additionally, France also has crucial economic interests in the region such as the nuclear giant Areva’s uranium mines in the neighbouring state of Niger.

    One of the striking aspects of this intervention has been France’s almost single-handed role in the conduct of Operation Serval with some logistic and technical support from the UK, Denmark, Canada, Belgium and Germany. The US involvement has so far been confined to intelligence sharing and providing some airlift support6, and it recently agreed to refuel French jet fighters and bombers. However, this could be merely because of the Malian request to France to intervene given the French commercial and cultural links to the region. France faces tremendous risks ranging from any negative fallout to strategic ramifications on its relations in Africa to the threat of terrorist reprisals in France. Another sensitive issue has been the state of hostages in the area with rebel groups enriching themselves through collecting ransoms, apart from the established drug trafficking and trade that form key sources of revenue for arms and other requirements. Currently, there are eight French hostages in the region.7

    On 16 January, the Islamist militant group Signers in Blood, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda, attacked an Algerian gas field run by BP, Statoil and the Algerian state oil company. They held hostage the facility’s foreign workers which ultimately led to the death of about 81 people, including British, American, French, Japanese, Norwegian and Romanian workers, and underscored the abysmal failure of the Algerian army in its decision to refuse foreign offers of help in handling the crisis.8 Given such an alarming threat environment, Mali has also come under close international observance to see if the poor nation becomes an Afghan-like quandary on the African continent.

    Two weeks into the intervention, French troops along with the Malian army have secured most of the north from the Islamist militants including Gao, northern Mali’s biggest city that had been under jihadist occupation from April of last year. Furthermore, fighters from the AQIM outfit have deserted Timbuktu, the remote yet beguiling Saharan town that had been controlled by them since last summer. French jets have pounded the mountainous rebel-controlled town of Kidal where Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the AQIM commander behind the recent attack on the Amena gas facility in Algeria, is said to be in hiding. Nevertheless, in spite of these swift successes, the future remains uncertain. Such rapid military advances could be deceptive as the Islamist rebels have merely melted into the civilian populace or disappeared into the familiar and tough desert terrain.

    The establishment of an African-led support mission for Mali has finally been organised in coordination with an EU military training mission in the country. The UK most recently affirmed its participation in the training mission. According to the BBC, this will include 330 military personnel comprising of 200 soldiers to West African nations, 40 military advisers to Mali, and a 90 support crew for the transport aircraft 9. The Royal Air Force’s (RAF) C17 transport planes have already been flying French equipment to Mali and the UK will provide a Sentinel reconnaissance aircraft for intelligence gathering.10 The African mission is a multinational initiative and will face a challenging situation ahead as the insurgents, overly familiar with fighting in the desert, may engage in a war of attrition. Yet this move by African states is an affirmative acceptance of responsibility towards ensuring their own security and diplomacy. What is certain is the need for Mali to achieve an internal political process11 which will strengthen the government’s mandate as opposed to the mobile, well-armed rebel groups who have been ravaging the country’s economic security and preventing sustainable development.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.