Mali: not another Afghanistan
As tensions mount in Mali and Algeria, it’s feared that northwest Africa could become ‘Europe’s Afghanistan’. The region is dangerous, but the threat is being overstated
It was a Saturday morning in November 2010, and Amadou Toumani Touré, the then president of Mali, was sitting in his magnificent palace on a hilltop above Bamako, the bustling capital. At the time, well-armed Islamist rebels were becoming more assertive in Mali’s vast northern desert, and western governments were growing impatient with the inability – or unwillingness, as some saw it – of Touré’s government to contain the problem.
Just weeks earlier, citing the worsening terror threat, France had urged its citizens in the north and east of Mali to leave immediately. As a result, the vital tourist industry, which is usually at its peak in November and December, was at a standstill.
Touré was clearly feeling aggrieved. Mali was “a victim, a hostage” of Islamists who had come from elsewhere, principally Algeria, he complained to The Irish Times, and they could be defeated only by a concerted effort from all the region’s powers. Yet Touré also protested that the French were overreacting and that Bamako remained in control of Malian territory. “I think it’s exaggerated. So far, the Islamists’ modus operandi is that they have always responded to attack. They never take the initiative.”
Touré’s confidence was misplaced, as Mali would quickly learn. Two years on, he is now in exile, having been deposed in a military coup last April.
An alliance of Islamist militias took advantage of his departure by seizing a vast swathe of northern Mali, and their surprise attempt to advance south to the capital earlier this month was the spark for a French air and ground assault that has focused world attention on the crisis. An unprecedented attack on a gas plant in southern Algeria, resulting in the deaths of at least 37 foreigners, has raised the stakes further, prompting the British prime minister, David Cameron, to suggest that stability and security in northwest Africa will take years, if not decades, to restore.
Two weeks into its intervention, France claims it has met its initial objectives by forcing Islamist militias to retreat from central Malian towns that were within striking distance of the capital. The first contingents of African soldiers began to arrive this week, supplementing a force of 2,000 French troops who have been greeted like heroes in Bamako.
On the diplomatic front the French president, François Hollande, has received unanimous support from western allies.
Literally and figuratively, however, Hollande finds himself in unfamiliar territory. He came to power last year promising to quickly withdraw French troops from Afghanistan and bury “la Françafrique”, the opaque nexus that bound France, its military and business interests to friendly African leaders. Until this month, when the unelected, military-backed civilian government of Mali appealed to Paris for military help, Hollande insisted there would be no French boots on the ground in Mali.
So why change course? What has caused France to abandon the diplomatic route and embark on a risky mission in a remote desert far from home? Could Mali turn into Europe’s Afghanistan, as excited headlines have put it this week; a protracted and costly counterinsurgency mission that cannot end in victory?
Hollande’s decision to intervene was a response to a plea for help from Mali’s government, which feared that the southward advance of a large Islamist column threatened the state’s survival. “The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own county and Europe,” the French defence minister, Jean Yves Le Drian, said. But for Mali’s neighbours and the west, the rise of jihadist militias in the Sahel has been a growing preoccupation over the past 20 years.
Strength in the Sahel
Spanning an area of more than three million square kilometres, much of it uninhabited desert or grassland, the Sahel, a belt of desert just south of the Sahara, has long been a centre of illicit smuggling. But whereas 20 years ago the trade was chiefly in tobacco and cannabis, today the Mali- Niger-Mauritania corridor is one of the busiest supply routes for cocaine, arms and illegal migrants heading to Europe.
Against this background, operating along the region’s porous, often unmarked borders, Islamist groups have been growing in strength. Four major factions, each with its own discrete goals and methods, are based in Mali.
While some local Tuaregs support the Islamists, particularly in the Ansar Dine faction founded by the former separatist leader Iyad ag Ghali, many of them do not and resent its fundamentalist form of Islam, at odds with the region’s traditional moderate Sufi beliefs.
Last year, however, bolstered by new fighters and weapons from post-Gadafy Libya, the major factions found common cause and took northern Mali with a speed that stunned many analysts.
Contemplating the spectre of Mali being overrun, and the instability that would ripple out across the region if that were to happen, Hollande argued that rejecting Bamako’s call for help would have been more dangerous than intervening.
Roland Marchal, a Mali specialist at SciencesPo in Paris, expects France’s well-armed and highly trained forces to dominate their adversaries on the battlefield. “But the most dangerous task is controlling towns and territories afterwards, and putting in place a legitimate bureaucracy,” he says.
Despite early successes, the French operation is fraught with risk. By intervening, Hollande has defied threats by one group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to kill a number of French hostages who are being held in the region. With 6,000 people having fled Mali in the past fortnight and access to some parts of the country extremely limited, aid agencies are concerned about the effects of a drawn-out conflict.
Ultimately, says Marchal, France could find itself being blamed if the civilian death toll begins to mount or the Malian army carries out reprisal attacks as it retakes the north. Reports of such attacks have already begun to emerge. “The French are in an extremely delicate position,” he says.
France has raised its domestic terror threat since the Mali operation began. In 1995, eight people were killed during a wave of bombings of the Paris metro by Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, a guerrilla Islamist movement from which AQIM traces some of its lineage, but whether any of the outfits operating in the Sahel have the capacity to carry out attacks against the “far enemy” in Europe remains an open question.
“It’s limited, but I’m sure they do,” says a European diplomat based in Bamako. “The links can be quite tenuous. If you look at the Bali bombings, for example, you theoretically had these jihadists with a direct line to Osama bin Laden.
“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?