Calls for action to curb Mali militias intensify
ANALYSIS:A foreign military intervention in Mali could become more likely as France and African states step up their efforts this week to secure a UN resolution authorising armed action to oust Islamist forces from the north of the country.
Mali descended into chaos last March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize more than half the country. Islamist militias, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), hijacked the revolt and control northern Mali – an area eight times larger than Ireland.
The militias have imposed Sharia law, carrying out floggings and executions, and destroying shrines in the holy city of Timbuktu. Their presence has also destabilised the wider west Africa region and stirred fears that Mali could become a base for terrorist groups targeting Europe.
Diplomatic efforts to restore order have intensified. French and UN officials say there is broad international consensus that military action is necessary to retake Mali’s north, but divisions remain on the scale, timing and make-up of an intervention force.
West African states are expected to send in a force of over 3,000, under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), a regional bloc, backed by the UN and the West. France, the most vocal champion of military action, says it wants the UN security council to adopt a resolution by December 20th allowing for the deployment, but some believe the force may not be in place until the second half of next year.
“There are many operational questions,” says Roland Marchal, a senior research fellow at Sciences Po in Paris. “Who is the enemy? What are our goals? How far do we go? What will we do when we take control of towns? What will be the role of the Malian army?”
On the UN security council, France, Germany, Russia and China are said to support approving force but the US has doubts about the ability of the west African troops to fight a desert war. UN chief Ban Ki-moon has cautiously recommended the council approve the use of force but has rejected calls from France and the African Union for UN funding.
Two of the main western players – the US and France – find themselves in a delicate position. France, the former colonial power, has a large Malian population and a number of French nationals remain hostages of al-Qaeda-linked groups in the region. Paris insists it will not send troops to Mali, but its money, intelligence and logistical support – like that of the US – would be essential to any mission.
The US insists negotiations must be exhausted before military action is pursued. Although Mali has returned to civilian control since the coup in March, Washington is also pushing for new elections, arguing that its laws preclude it from providing direct aid to Mali until democracy returns.
“The Americans are saying, if we are to get involved with drones and special forces, there must be a legitimate government,” says Marchal. “Obviously, that legitimacy is tied to elections. But then the Malians reply: there can only be elections if they’re held across the whole country. It’s chicken and egg. We’re in a difficult diplomatic position.”
Add to this mix the major regional power that arguably remains most resistant to a quick intervention: Algeria. Sharing a 1,400km border with Mali and retaining fresh memories of its own struggles with Islamist militants, Algeria is wary of any action that would lead to a flow of civilians and fighters to the north.
“It’s not that what is happening in northern Mali leaves Algeria indifferent, but in a very pragmatic way, it’s better for Algeria if Aqim is in northern Mali rather than in Algeria,” says Marchal. Others argue that Algeria wants to avoid the US and France, from which it won independence 1962, gaining a stronger foothold in its neighbourhood.
Officials in Bamako, Mali’s capital, say Islamist groups are preparing for the inevitable. Reports suggest their ranks are swelling with Malians and foreigners, and André Bourgeot, a Mali specialist at the CNRS research institute in Paris, says there is evidence the militias are reorganising.
According to UN estimates, 500,000 people have fled northern Mali for neighbouring countries since March. Among those who remain, Bourgeot says, there are reports of isolated “passive resistance” to the militias. Local groups have been protecting families. “The people are the victims of this situation, but it’s difficult to resist when you have no weapons.”