Stabilizing efforts: The crisis in Mali and international intervention

Since early 2012, with the ouster of President Amandou Toumani Toure in a coup, Mali has been heading towards a crisis. The ethnic Tuaregs under NMLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) and the Islamic fundamentalist groups, who took advantage of the situation, are to be blamed for the total chaos that Mali is witnessing now.

Due to utterly slow consolidation of a West African force-AFISMA (African-led International Support Mission to Mali), France stepped in and since then has been fighting the rebel forces. The French troops have reclaimed the city of Timbuktu and the airport, after having gained control of Gao. These were the two main bastions of the Islamic fundamentalist groups.

African leaders meeting in Addis Ababa for the African Union Summit thanked France for taking the lead in intervening in the crisis, which was something that the African countries should have done to defend a member nation.

It was reported that so far about 1000 African troops have arrived in Mali. The AU Security Meet has decided to give the African countries a week’s time to commit troops to the Mission. Doing the round are also remarks that African nations are waiting for the France to finish off the big battles, following which they would intervene.

However, it will not be wise to think that the French can finish off things on its own. Here the US’ policy towards Mali is very important as France would need US’ help to survive the fight against the rebel forces.

Recently the US announced that it would send tanker aircrafts to refuel the French jets, as requested by France. This would help France to conduct airstrikes to relieve pressure on French troops.

The US has also questioned whether France’s intervention in Mali is coupled with a thought-through exit strategy, otherwise it may lead to a situation similar to Afghanistan.

In response France’s President Hollande recently said that France does not intend to remain in Mali after achieving victory over the separatists and shall pass the baton to African forces.

Origin of the crisis

Mali is an extremely poor country that faces food shortages and even famines. There is also a long standing animosity between the sparsely populated north inhabited by the ethnic Tuaregs and economically dominant south.

Also, Mali was regarded as a model democracy few years back, as result of which Malians have come to treasure political participation as an attribute of citizenship.

The 20 year-old democratic traditions ended with a coup that removed the Malian President. Within weeks the Tuareg led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) seized several cities in northern Mali.

Following this, fundamentalist groups-Ansar Dine, Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) formed a military alliance of convenience with the rebel groups, resulting in the Tuareg’s call for self-determination being lost in the fear of Islamic fundamentalists overrunning the country. The Islamic rebels want imposition of Sharia law and had already imposed it in major cities.

Thus, what started as an uprising of the Tuareg ethnic minority soon transformed into a multi-ethnic insurgency. Another contributing factor was the end of war in Libya, which led to an influx of arms and men who joined the rebel forces.

In fact the entire effort to end the conflict has been dubbed as a ‘war on terror’. But the core of the conflict is the nationalist secessionist movement of the ethnic Tuaregs.

The demand for an independent state for the Tuaregs called Azawad was largely ignored by the international community for a long time.

The Tuaregs are nomadic pastoralists, speaking Tamashek, one of the Berber languages and are about 1.5 billion in number. They are ethnically different from the Arabs that are present in nations to the north, and the Africans that make up southern Mali and control the government. The state has for long tried to crush their self-determination movement.

Therefore, given the complex nature of origin of the crisis, a simplification of ethnic, religious and political dynamics cannot be used to put the crisis to an end. Mere military means to crush the rebellion will not suffice-it can only halt the fighting. The long-standing grievances of the ethnic Tuaregs can only be met when the next government that rules is chosen by people’s mandate.

Mali’s future

Over 2,00,000 people are believed to be internally displaced in Mali and around 1,40,000 are estimated to have fled over the borders, according to a report by the EU.

Reclaiming the north from rebels and extremists immediately is a priority now. And this can only be achieved through international assistance. France’s prompt response in the crisis was lauded by the African nations but the critics have raised doubts over French action being driven by economic interests.

France does have strategic interest in the region but it will be wrong to think that it was the driving factor for French intervention.

Further, since the Malian military could not hold off an attack by the Tuareg separatists, they would definitely not have survived an offensive by the Islamic fundamentalists. Therefore, French intervention was timely.

Also, France cannot continue fighting against the rebel forces until it is aided by the US. Fighting a war needs huge infrastructure and France would not suffice till the end without the US refueling its planes apart from providing crucial intelligence, though it may not physically intervene in the conflict.

Another consideration for the French is to carefully plan its exit strategy as they would surely not want a repeat of the situation in Afghanistan.

Further with the African-led troops from countries such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Cote’ d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone coming into the picture, matters could complicate as they may be biased towards a particular community in a particular situation, if their mandate remains in ambiguity.

This was the reason that the US had asked all of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours to keep out, so a problem like this would not arise.

Now UK is also expected to send troops to train forces in Mali as part of a joint EU Mission. However, the British will not get involved in the fighting.

Further, the International Monitory Fund has also approved an $18.4 million loan to Mali to help stabilize the economy there for the next twelve months. Japan also has offered $120 million to help counter the Islamic forces in Mali and to stabilize the Sahel region. Part of this aid is to strengthen AFISMA.

The Mali crisis has already had spillover effects as seen in the four-day long hostage crisis in Algeria at the Ain Amenas gas complex, which was attacked by militants claiming revenge for Algeria’s support of the international intervention in Mali.

Reclaiming Mali from extremists is a priority and this can only be achieved through international assistance. But that would not solve all of Mali’s problems. Lasting peace can only be achieved when after fighting subsides the rebel groups are unarmed, an interim government established and people’s mandate sought.

Economic development of the country, especially the north, should also be given priority if grievances of the Tuaregs are to be redressed. It may take time for Mali to achieve peace and stability, but with international assistance pouring in, it can be achieved.

The international players on their part should concentrate on achieving their objectives and quickly exiting Mali, allowing the people of Mali to decide their political future through elections, once peace is achieved.