Foreign Policy Blogs

The Intervention Calculation: Mali

Helmets belonging to soldiers of the Nigerian army are seen as part of preparations for deployment to Mali, at the Nigerian Army peacekeeping centre in Jaji

Brussels was the scene of an international donor conference last week to pledge €340 million in support of stabilizing Mali. The conference comes after a recent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution calling for a 12,600-strong peacekeeping force in Mali and offers a significant lesson in the intervention calculations at work in the U.N. The mission will be called MINUSMA, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, and will be the U.N.’s third largest. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has already moved to appoint Albert Koenders as mission head and his Special Representative. So why Mali?

A common chorus at the U.N. is that a full 75 percent of matters addressed in the UNSC involve Africa. Mali is a case in point. A colonial legacy, ongoing foreign interference (including from those same former colonial powers), and an inability to sustain domestic peace and security have all contributed ongoing conflicts.

Mali is also seen as the weakest link in an already unstable Sahel region. Despite repeated attempts to root out the causes of violence throughout the 1990s, the West African country was confronted with civil strife yet again, in January of 2013 when a rebellion in the north of the country over domestic grievances was hijacked by militants liked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This spawned the creation of Malian AQIM splinter groups, such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and  Ansar Dine.

Interim Malian president M. Dioncounda Traore, fearing the threats posed by a strong foreign-led intervention, appealed to France for military assistance, who led the push for intervention. A veto-wielding permanent member of the UNSC, France was startled into action by the rebellion after the taking the northern town of Konno by foreign insurgents and the threats to take control of the regional capital of Mopti. The former colonial power in Mali, France was also concerned for regional security and economic interests in their former colonial sphere obliged, and began to set levers of intervention in motion.

Using Traore’s appeal to foreign intervention to get around the UNSC’s article 51, which limits the use of unilateral intervention until the UNSC has examined the matter, France proceed with military action that combined French forces with some 2,000 forces from Chad. The intent was to militarily to push the insurgent alliance from Konno while also protecting the regional capital of Mopti through the use of aerial power. The operation, named Opération Serval, worked and caused the insurgents to flee to the inhospitable Saharan Desert.

Despite winning the initial battle, security and diplomatic analysts have conceded that the hard fighting has not yet occurred. The very real threat of AQIM remains strong, especially after their members fled Mali and remain active in the vast and ungovernable areas of the Sahel region, which spans much of the majority of the north of the continent. The growth of safe havens and arms depots, which contribute to instability in the Sahel, also point to southern Libya where the intervention calculation resulted in the use of force but has also created what is increasingly looking like a power vacuum; one that is spreading to Mali. This is especially true of southern Libya, which connects to the Sahara and is ethnically Tuareg. The same grievances that have led to uprisings in Mali are also being reinforced in Libya, a factor that has not escaped MINUSMA and the U.N.

For its part, the interim Malian government also remains weak, and its sincerity in peace and reconciliation talks between the aggrieved north and government controlled south makes a push for elections in July seem an ambitious project, at best. Reports of the Malian army conducting revenge attacks against the ethnically Tuareg population in the north, ostensibly for attracting the foreign fighters, is also alarming. These attacks serve to increase tensions and distrust between the broader north and south of the country and fostering the domestic instability that AQIM thrives on. Unless addressed, this calculus will ensure ongoing conflict.

To confront these challenges, the peacekeeping force that France has pushed for adoption in the UNSC also contains measures for domestic reconciliation and civilian peace and security. The idea behind these recommendations follows a new approach to U.N. peacekeeping that focuses just as much on ensuring peace and security as it does on containing conflict. However, many serious questions have been raised over the course of the donor conference regarding implementation and inclusion in the process.

Beyond all this, Mali has shown that a leadership role in a conflict can alter the intervention calculation from crisis to engagement, just as it has in Libya. Just as in Libya, the outcome is far from certain and ongoing events will prove if the French move is more hubris or careful calculation. A French soldier, commenting shortly after initial fighting had ceased, may hold the answer to assessing the current situation: “We do not know where we’re going, but it gives us strength.”