Mali: not another Afghanistan
“But in fact the attacks were organised by self-radicalising groups. Such groups may indeed have a link of some kind, or contact of some kind with somebody whose job title is AQIM, but it wouldn’t actually be AQIM organising such a thing.”
The key to progress in Mali, says the diplomat, rests with influential Algeria. A regional powerhouse whose military-dominated regime has held firm while dictatorships have been toppled in nearby Tunisia and Libya, Algeria is accused by some of taking an ambiguous stance towards problems in the Sahel.
Mali’s problems are closely bound up with Algeria’s long, bloody civil war in the 1990s, and the west has for years been pressing the regime in Algiers to take a more active role in rooting out the Islamist threat in the region.
Relations between Paris and Algiers have been improving over the past year, and Hollande scored a notable success by persuading the former colony to allow French jets to use its airspace for the Mali operation. Algeria has also promised to seal its border with Mali. But Marchal notes that Algiers remains “extremely cool” on the idea of a foreign intervention on its doorstep, and the striking reluctance of French and other European leaders to criticise the Algerians for their tactics in storming the In Amenas plant last week shows just how much they need Algeria on their side.
The French intervention will take longer than the “couple of weeks” Paris predicted at the outset, Marchal says, but he dismisses the notion that Mali could become a protracted, Afghanistan-style conflict. “The Taliban have a very strong social base. They have very significant support in the Pashtun community. They have a conception of Islam which is shared by many people in the society.” The Islamist groups in Mali have much weaker ties to the country and its people, he says, and the French action, at least so far, has popular support.
Scale of the threat
“I would say it’s potentially overstating it to talk about a unified terrorist threat across the region,” says Susi Dennison, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “I think the circumstances in Mali and southern Algeria are quite specific, and, although the networks operate across borders, there is diversity even within the Islamist groups that are involved in northern Mali.
“But nevertheless, there is a real awareness now, not just within intelligence services but within the diplomatic community, about the fact that this is going to have to be a region where there is focused attention over the coming years.”
Winning the battle is one thing, in other words, but restoring peace and security will hinge on diplomacy. Can France successfully navigate the complex web of competing interests among Mali’s neighbours? Can it convince African states to commit their armies for the long haul? And will European allies, so far unwilling to put boots on the ground, provide the money and know-how to help Mali rebuild?