Saturday, January 12, 2013

The War in Mali

The French have already lost a helicopter pilot in the Malian invasion, undertaken at the behest of the Malian government. At stake, for François Hollande, are the survival of Mali as a state, the security of the Malian people, the safety of some 6,000 French citizens in Mali including a number of hostages, and, more broadly, the ability of African states to withstand attacks by insurgent groups embracing an anti-development agenda.

Here is the analysis of Paul Quilès, who served as defense minister in 1985-86:
Au-delà des frontières maliennes, le risque est grand de voir s’établir un vaste sanctuaire pour les groupes islamistes radicaux s’étendant de la Mauritanie au Nigéria. AQMI a fait école et les groupes qui lui sont affiliés, implantés localement, sont autant de risques de déstabilisation pour les pays ouest-africains, d’autant plus que les capacités militaires comme la légitimité démocratique de nombreux gouvernements de la région sont limitées.
A crucial issue here is Mali's uranium resources, which are coveted by any number of players. Hollande needs a quick resolution to the current unstable situation, but it is hard to see how a quick resolution can be achieved without a much more substantial commitment of resources than has been made to date.


Anonymous said...

An anti-development agenda? Heaven forfend!

Mitch Guthman said...

Interesting article. I think Paul Quilès is right about what’s at stake and some other points, too.

Mainly, though, I think the problem confronting Hollande has more to do with the nature of the society in Mali than with the military resources that France can supply.

As regards the adequacy of the French military to engage and defeat the rebels militarily, I’m reflecting on the experience of Executive Outcomes and trying to apply it to this situation and it seems to me that there are really two different problems.

On the one hand, Executive Outcomes (and earlier African versions of “white mercenaries”) showed that a very small force of highly skilled soldiers could be very successful against what is basically an armed rabble, even if the “rabble” is well armed and of far greater numbers. I think very likely that even the French military force already in the country can probably drive the rebels out of that part of the country while taking minimal casualties themselves. (Retaking the North is another question. That would take a lot more manpower because basically the rebels would have no choice but to fight. Also, I don't know how much support they have in that part of the country so that's an issue, too)

On the other hand, the more serious questions are why couldn’t the Malian government’s armed forces keep control over the entire country (or even just keep the rebel bottled up) and what would need to be changed in Malian society to enable the government to prevent other similar uprisings or even to retain control of its territory coming behind the French as they push the rebels out?

Here again, the problem is less a military one than a question of what to do about weak or failed states, especially those where the government exists to extract taxes from the people for themselves rather than for the purpose of providing services to the people.

Obviously, these “Islamic radicals or jihadis” have been receiving a lot of support from the elites of the Arab oil states and it would certainly be an excellent idea if the West could muster the political will to have their secret services remove this aspect of the problem, not simply as it relates to Mali but to ourselves as well.

Nevertheless, Mali has a very weak and corrupt government. I think the causes of this insurgency are very difficult to untangle (and much of it is being fed by the Arab world), at least a part of what’s fueling the insurgency is that many young people feel disenfranchised and oppressed by the state. Others throughout Mali have seems to have no faith in the institutions of the state, which they view as little more than a criminal syndicate.

It seems to me that the real job, long term is for France (as the former colonial power) to begin to lay the groundwork for the development of a functional Malian state with a stable and reasonably honest, functional government. I don’t see France as being equipped to undertake such a task, although recent court cases and investigations suggest that a small amount of progress is being made. It lacks both the wherewithal and the motivation to really build a functional states in Mali and other part of Francophone Africa; and it hasn’t the stomach to deal with the parts of the French establishment that profit from dealing with the warlords and mafia state officials.

The French military may enjoy some limited success as the rebels feel the punch of a Western-style military, but over time this will slow. The French can supply "shock troops" and air support to push the rebels out but as we've seen elsewhere, it will be up to the government troops to come behind them and do the clean up and administration necessary to prevent the rebels from returning. I see nothing to suggest that the government forces are capable of doing this.

Anonymous said...

Art I think you got it wrong about uranium being an issue behind the French intervention in Mali. Mali's main mining prospects are in gold mainly situated in the south of the country. Uranium, on the other hand, is a major factor in France's relationship with neighboring Niger where the French state company Areva exploits the mine at Arlit where jihadis in the past have kidnapped French nationals.

Quilès assessment of the regional geo-political stakes is right on spot. However even an initial roll-back of the jihadi forces will only be the commencement of the operation. The Malian political situation will ultimately prove a crucial factor. The young officers who overthrew the former president and stymied any efforts to restore even a sham democracy are wary of foreign intervention reckoning that an international force (France will bring it forces from its African cronies to give a African mask to the operation) will eventually be used to oust them from power. The gulf between the civilian authorities and the Young Turk officers is immense and probably unreconcilable. Militia forces have been created by these officers with certain businessmen backers and this could be a future source of unrest in Bamako.
Negotiations have been advancing with certain factions of the Toureq movement to shift alliances to back French efforts. Tricky business in many respects. Money can go a long way to wooing Toureq factions but ultimately political promises of significant regional automony within Mali will be necessary. This could touch off in Bamako major reactions by the militias who will accuse Paris of undermining Malian unity.
Finally the regional context is key, specially Algeria's reaction. Until now Algerian leadership has been cool to the prospect of French intervention in its "hinterland". Hollande was told so during a state visit to Algiers in December. Without a direct military role for Algeria, the jihadis, even if they are chased out of the major towns in northern Mali, could wage a prolonged and bloody guerilla campaign from the inaccessible moutainous regions.
In short, Hollande has taken on a task which is likely to be much longer and more problematical then he projects. The French could get seriously bogged down in the Saharan sands.

FrédéricLN said...

I agree (as often) with Paul Quilès's analysis. An organization like al-Qaeda, that aims to re-establish a caliphate, needs to start somewhere. No regular army can maintain order on all the desert. Success in this regard was only obtained through feudal-style agreements with nomadic groups.

The Niger could successfully maintain its uranium mines, in its Northern desert, since decades, thanks to continuous negotiations with these groups.

The issue with AQMI is that "local" nomads themselves don't control their own desert parts any more. Armed forces imported from Algeria and Libya are stronger.

Well, as the Russian diplomacy remarked it, the foreign powers which destabilized Libya and, let's add it, Algeria, have some responsibility in the situation — and let's also add the over-supply of arms by the former USSR to the same countries, is another source of the present invasions.