Friday, May 17, 2013

Mali: Then, Now and the Future

Due to my interest in counter-terrorism, I have found the situation in Mali quite fascinating (and horrible at the same) since the takeover of northern Mali by the Islamist extremists. In this blog, I would like to give a brief background to the situation in Mali, discuss the current situation and give some future projections and suggestions as to how the international community should proceed. I should also mention that I have helped Senator Mobina Jaffer in creating her own blog on this issue, with strong focus on how the situation affected the women in Mali. You can read her blog here: . However, as I have mentioned, I will discuss the situation in Mali in more broad terms. So here we go!


For more than a decade, Mali has been a model democratic nation for the other African countries.  However, in spring of 2012, the situation in Mali took a turn for the worst after the ousting of President Toure by the Tuareg nationalists (also known as MNLA or National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad) with the help of Islamist extremists.  Although MNLA has gained independence of Azawad, they decided to renounce its claim on Azawad due to conflicting aims with the Islamist extremists. Thus northern Mali was left in the hands of the extremists. 

However, one needs to keep in mind that the Islamist extremists were never one unified group. Indeed, they are composed of three groups: Ansar Dine, Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQUIM).  Although they only had loose ties to each other, they all wanted to impose a hard-line form of Sharia - the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi/Salafi sect of Islam. However, the brutality imposed by these extremists should not be blindly accepted as the teachings of Sharia. Indeed, Saran Keita Diakite, president of the Women's Peace and Security network for the West African economic community ECOWAS, explained that: “They cut off people arms and beat up women who have had sex outside marriage ... while they themselves are raping girls and women and are forcing girls to marry. The first night, [the bride] is forced to have sex with five to six men. It's not Sharia."

The international community stood by and watched the horror unfolding in northern Mali… That is not to say that wheels were not turning. For example, in December 2012, UN Security Council passed resolution 2085  that recalled previous resolutions regarding the Northern Mali conflict, resolutions 2056 and 2071, in authorizing action. In addition, according to Ban Ki Moon, it aimed at the full restoration of Mali’s constitutional order and territorial integrity”. However, as with everything in bureaucracy, and especially international bureaucracy, everything takes time. People in northern Mali did not have any time to spare.

However, the rebel capture of Konna, and the looming takeover of a vital militarily airfield in the town of Sevare (that also had a lot of French citizens), prompted a proactive military intervention by France. French government was also worried that Mali would become the breeding ground for French-Mali jihadists, who would then spread their message to Malian immigrants in France thus they decided to intervene.  Although UNSCR 2085 calls for financial support from Member States, France’s allies were content with just providing some planes and a lot of promises to think about greater contributions. Unfortunately for France, the Islamists extremists vowed to make France pay for their proactive military intervention in Mali. It was said that Algerian gas facility hostage situation was in response to the French first air strikes in Mali. The initial intervention that started on January 11th looked promising, but the military successes stalled as the extremists turned to guerilla warfare.


France has contributed around 4,000 soldiers to the fight in northern Mali. With the help of 2900 West African soldiers from Chad, Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso and Senegal, they have driven out the Islamist extremists out of northern Mali. However, the extremists have retreated into the desert from where they are carrying out guerilla warfare with the French and African forces. Thus far, the invention cost France around 133$m. 

Although French government has been “withdrawing” its forces since March, it is doing so very slowly and most of them are likely to stay at least until July. France has never intended to stay long-term in Mali. It achieved its goals of stopping the advancement of the extremists and freeing northern cities from their rule. It is now focusing on rooting out rebel holdouts and training African troops to take over peacekeeping efforts once the French leave.  

On 25 April 2013, the Security Council adopted resolution 2100 authorizes deployment of a UN force comprising 11,200 military personnel and 1,440 international police, which would take over from and absorb UN African-led mission AFISMA on July 1. However, the newly created UN force MINUSMA will not be authorized to undertake offensive military operations against the extremists, thus it is likely that this function will be carried out by remaining French forces that supposed to dwindle to 1000 troops by the end of the year.

The Future?

The waiting game. The extremists have retreated into the shadows for now, but they are waiting for their chance to reclaim what they have lost. The French politicians are under a lot of pressure to make sure that they do loose the support of the people, which is why they have begun withdrawing their forces. The Member States’ support for MINUSMA will wane with time as well.
 If there aren’t extremists posing a major threat in areas where the UN troops will operate or if international military forces are not conducting major combat operations in those areas, then MINUSMA will take over on July 1. However, what will happen if that is not the case?  French and West African forces will be responsible for carrying out the fighting, until UN deems it safe to go in and set up camp. It is most likely that the extremists do not have the capability or the organization between themselves to organize another major takeover of the area. This means paints a very familiar picture: guerilla warfare against peacekeepers that are not authorized to do much other than defend themselves. 

Making MINUSMA peace enforcers would allow them to use lethal force in serious combat situations, but this is unlikely to fly with some of the permanent Security Council members, such as Russia. On the other hand, MINUSMA is going to be supported by some remaining French troops that will carry out strategic military operations, but will that be enough?? What happens after the French leave and there are still guerilla extremists out there? 

So back to the waiting game, the extremists have all the time in the world to wait compared to UN or France. Political realities for them are quite time constraining. Thus what we need to do is not focus on “stabilizing” the region with peacekeepers, because it will never be stable if the Malians know that the extremists are hiding in the shadows are just waiting for the right moment to strike back. We have to make sure that fear is neutralized, by … well, “neutralizing” the extremists. 

The only way to fight guerilla warfare is by using guerilla warfare (i.e. counterguerilla AND counterinsurgency (COIN) operations – see definitions below). Therefore, there should be dedicated and weighty counterguerilla and COIN units to which enough resources are dedicated to be able to deal with the guerrilla tactics of the extremists. This means that either the French forces should entirely dedicate themselves to this goal or there should be a counterguerilla /COIN unit within MINUSMA. In order to truly to deal with the extremists, counterguerilla/COIN should be the primary goal before any peacekeeping or peacebuilding efforts. Moreover, counter-insurgency effort will not be a short-term affair thus units that can stay in Mali for some time need to be dedicated to the mission. Moreover, West African forces should be trained on counter-insurgency, rather than stabilization or peacekeeping. If they do this, then there will be a smooth transition from counterguerrila efforts carried out by French forces (which they should be doing) to COIN carried out by West African forces. 

It is important to wipe out the extremists as quickly and as efficiently as possible, because time is on their side. If we use conventional military tactics to fight unconventional (guerilla) tactics, it will take a very long time with very few victories for our side. We’ll eventually give up and go home.
In the meantime, radicalization could be in full swing. The instability, fear and broken homes from which the youth will search for something to identify with - such as a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging to a group, which can easily be perverted and manipulated to identify with extremists groups and jihad – will create an environment that will breed ample opportunities for the extremists to radicalize the youth (or not youth). Thus we need act now, and we need to so strategically and swiftly.

Counterguerilla operations - focus on detecting and defeating the armed insurgent or guerrilla, without solving the society’s underlying problems. Military efforts alone, however, cannot defeat an insurgency.

Counterinsurgency (COIN) - involves all political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological, and civic actions that can be taken by a government to defeat an insurgency. COIN operations include supporting a Host Nation’s military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken to defeat an insurgency. Avoiding the creation of new insurgents and forcing existing insurgents to end their participation is vital to defeating an insurgency. COIN operations often include security assistance programs such as foreign military sales programs, the foreign military financing program, and international military training and education programs.

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