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Why Military Intervention in Mali Would be a Mistake
16 October 2012

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

On 29 September, Mali`s interim Prime Minister, Modibo Diarra, conveyed a message from his president officially requesting the United Nations General Assembly in New-York to approve a foreign military intervention in northern Mali.  This demand was followed on 13 October by the United Nations Security Council 2071 Resolution requesting a detailed plan for such an operation from ECOWAS within 45 days.

Such a military intervention could have dramatic consequences and create a spillover that will affect not only Mali but also the entire Sahel and the African continent.

Firstly, it would be a huge mistake to think that 3 300 ECOWAS troops – or even 3700 – could defeat the terrorists of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Indeed, there is a strong probability that the latter could simply flee to the different neighbouring Sahelian countries with notoriously porous frontiers which facilitates such movements. Furthermore, fighting asymmetrical forces such as guerrillas amid the dunes and heat of the Sahel, with which the terrorists have had plenty of the time to get familiar, would be hell for the ECOWAS forces.

Traoré and his advisers believe that under military constraint, the Tuareg-led Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine (and even the MUJAO!) would be willing to enter into a dialogue with Bamako and sign a peace agreement. It is important to note that the MNLA has on numerous occasions in the past shown its willingness to enter into dialogue in order to find a peaceful solution to this conflict. The MNLA`s various calls were, however, received with disdain by the authorities in Bamako. Moreover, the gamble of a ‘forced dialogue` is potentially hazardous and could produce the opposite effect. Indeed, under threat there is a risk that many members of the MNLA and Ansar Dine could join the terrorists of AQIM and MUJAO, who are only interested in violent acts and terror. This equation is likely to drag the ECOWAS forces into a trap of unpredictable quicksand.

Additionally, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that even if a minority of the Malian population is in favour of foreign military intervention, as they demonstrated on 11 October in the streets of Bamako, another important part of the population is on the other hand, opposed to such an eventual military interference. They fear that military intervention would pose the risk of a politico-military stalemate. Even more so, they perceive the presence of military troops from neighbouring African countries as a loss of national sovereignty, a humiliation and an insult to their honour. After having freed themselves from white colonialism fifty years ago, they would then live under the protective guardianship of black   African forces. This would be a serious blow to Malians` pride..

Similarly, numerous Malian officers are against the idea of a foreign military intervention on their soil, which would only worsen the tensions already existing among the different groups and factions within the demoralised and psychologically affected Malian army.

These two last points are crucial. In the increasingly probable eventuality of a foreign military intervention, initially planned for six months, there is a very real risk of an implosion of Malian society and its army. Such a collapse could seriously backfire against ECOWAS forces and lead to a civil war. Such a scenario  would result in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees dispersed across the region, fleeing from Mali to the neighbouring countries. Some might also try to flee to Europe and elsewhere while famine will be another real threat. This potential civil war will in turn only exacerbate tensions and widen the gap within Malian society. As a consequence, the creation of an independent state in the north  would then become inevitable.

Having said that, a durable solution to the Malian crisis remains and will remain in Bamako, within the army and the Malian government. Indeed, the roots of the current Malian problem are deep and largely situated within weak and corrupt governmental institutions, as well as the blatant absence of  responses to the legitimate socio-economic demands of the Malian Tuaregs for the past fifty years. Also, Malians must understand that they hold the key and the solution to   their problems in general and in northern Mali in particular. The military establishment and the political elite must overcome their differences and divergences in order to resolve this crisis rapidly. It is only by reinforcing the country`s institutions, working hand in hand with civilians, the military and members of the civil society, that an end to this crisis may emerge. Peace can only be obtained through the return of strong constitutional order to Bamako, the creation of a legitimate government of consensus, representing all components of the Malian society, and the preservation of the national unity and territorial integrity of a sovereign Malian state.

Also, it is urgent that a dialogue with the MNLA and Ansar Dine takes place, taking into account the legitimate claims of the Tuaregs. If this is not done, this political crisis could rapidly become a politico-humanitarian catastrophe in which the losers will be Malians themselves and the winners the different terrorist and drug-trafficking groups such as AQIM and the MUJAO.

Mali`s interim president, Dioncounda Traoré`s decision   for a military intervention clearly indicates a serious lack of political and strategic vision not only for his country and the Malian population, but also for the entire region of the Sahel. This also indicates that Traoré is clearly ill advised both in Bamako and from outside his country. A military intervention in Mali is based on a very short-term strategy ignoring the medium- to long-term consequences for the country  and the Sahel region, which is likely to go up in flames. If Mali were to collapse, those European and African states that have no direct border with this country and are in favour of a military intervention will be the least affected, if at all. No doubt, after Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, our strategists and other experts` amateurism could well lead us yet again towards a politico-humanitarian earthquake in the Sahel region . 

Last month,  US president Barak Obama`s former adviser, Parag Khanna wrote in the New-York Times  that in the next few years, the current Mali could well be divided into two distinct territorial entities. We are not far from it.

After having opened the Pandora`s Box with the NATO intervention in Libya last year,  which has in turn triggered the current chaos in Mali, a new foreign military interference in Africa would only worsen the security situation on the African continent. It will need several months for ECOWAS military forces to be operational. Malians and their government must efficiently utilise this period in order to enter into a genuine dialogue to avoid a military intervention which will have tremendous financial costs but more importantly, enormous loss of human lives. Any other alternative is likely to fail and, while it would perhaps serve other interests, it will not be in the interest of the Malian people.  

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