Mali: Another Long War? (Part 2)

Mali - Another Long War(This piece was originally published by Channel 4 News on Tuesday 22 January 2013, and is the second of two parts by Ben Zala and Anna Alissa Hitzemann)

There is a stark warning today the western intervention strategy in Mali is “flawed”. Part two of a special paper also says France and others are likely to be involved in the conflict “for some time”

Not unlike the United States in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the French government has begun the intervention with talk of short timelines and minimal troops on the ground before quickly changing its tune, write Anna Alissa Hitzemann and Ben Zala for the Oxford Research Group.

The initial deployment of 800 French troops may end up numbering more than 2,500 and President François Hollande has stated France’s mission is to ensure that “when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate  authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory”. This does not seem to tally with the earlier statement by the French Foreign Minister that the current level of French involvement in the country would last for “a matter of weeks”.

The latest reports are that the Islamist fighters have been preparing for this intervention by carving a network of caves and tunnels into cliff faces to house bases and supplies of fuel and ammunition. This, combined with the concerns about the roles of both the Malian security forces and a number of potential contributors to the ECOWA force in relation to the abuse of civilian populations (and the likely blowback effect of such actions), mean that stability in Mali will be almost impossible achieve with military force alone.

It is also far from clear whether the African states that are set to join the intervention will be able commit forces for a drawn-out insurgency. After Chad, the second biggest promised contributor of troops is Nigeria, which has pledged a contingent of 900.

Yet the Nigerian government itself is fighting its own Islamist-inspired insurgency with the Boko Haram group in the country’s north. Despite a relative decline in Boko Haram attacks in recent months and even the potential for Saudi-backed peace talks between the rebels and the government, fighting could easily intensify once more, in which case Nigeria is unlikely to remain involved in Mali in any significant way.

Without taking serious action to address the sense of marginalisation and disenfranchisement of those who were willing to join one of the rebel groups… there are few reasons to think the current intervention will produce a durable peace in Mali.

Not only have France and its allies underestimated the difficulty of fighting the northern rebels among civilian populations in which bombing from above is of little use, there appears to be no sign of a plan as to how the factors underlying the uprising (including the original Tuareg rebellion) can be addressed.

Without taking serious action to address the sense of marginalisation and disenfranchisement of those who were willing to join one of the rebel groups — Tuareg, Islamist or otherwise — there are few reasons to think the current intervention will produce a durable peace in Mali.

Ongoing conflict

While military force is considered the only option, feelings of resentment amongst elements of the population of northern Mali are likely to increase. Not only this, it will provide ample encouragement to other anti-Western paramilitary groups across North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Central, South and Southeast Asia.

The central lesson of the western interventions and small-scale military operations (including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere) of the post 9-11 era, has been that reacting to the symptoms of insecurity once they are deeply manifested, and few options other than military force remain, is a fundamentally flawed strategy for global security. This means that France and others are likely to now be involved in an ongoing conflict in Mali for some time.

Not only do the (so far conspicuously absent) plans for a post-conflict stabilisation process need to be settled between France and its coalition partners now, a serious commitment to assisting the Malian government to going much further in addressing the marginalisation of the north will be crucial.

Until the focus shifts from military control to working towards solving the root causes of the conflict, no viable sustainable security will be found for Mali.

Anna Alissa Hitzemann is a  Peaceworker with Quaker Peace and Social Witness. She currently works with Oxford Research Group as a Project Officer for the Sustainable Security Programme, with a focus on our ‘Marginalisation of the Majority World’ project.

Ben Zala is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester.

Image source: Malian Airfield Protection Vehicle and Crew at Bamako, Mali. Source: UK Ministry of Defence.