Mali has increasingly fallen under the specter of Al Qaeda and its offshoots. A paralyzed, non-functioning government to the south has been toppled in favor of a weak, disorganized military regime. It is unlikely that Mali, by itself, will be able to thwart the goals of Al Qaeda and its affiliates as they consolidate their control in the North. Cities which were once focal points of Western tourist traffic are now enduring scenes of cultural destruction, as well as amputations and executions.
The United Nations has proposed that, in order to save Mali, the Economic Community of West African States formulate a planned military intervention on behalf of the Malian government. This plan envisages a force of between three and four thousand ECOWAS troops that will enter Northern Mali and rout Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Ignoring ECOWAS’ dubious record at successful intervention (ECOMOG, ECOWAS’ intervention in Liberia, was often referred to as “Every Car or Moveable Object Gone”), there is still the matter of a four thousand man operation ostensibly maintaining security in a zone the size of France.
This force, however, is not projected to even begin operations until September or October of next year. Al Qaeda is not going to sit still during this time. Malians, especially those displaced by the conflict, are not willing to wait. Already, locals are forming militias with the goal of retaking the North. While the formation of these militias does help demonstrate that AQIM is not highly popular, they also can lead to future instability. Once groups arm themselves and gain some level of political control of a region it can be very difficult to get them to put down their arms and rejoin the civilian world.
Finally, even assuming the intervention force gets rolling, no major spoilers appear, and the Malian government becomes more defined, there is no guarantee that the Tuaregs will be willing to place themselves under the control of Bamako once more. There have been rebellions in 1916, 1962, 1990, 2007, and now in 2012. These rebellions are not short affairs either, most last at least two years. The Tuareg rebels who began the current rebellion, the MNLA, have indicated their willingness to accept autonomy rather than full independence. Ansar Dine, up until now allied AQIM, may be able to be turned, but Iyad Ag Ghaly is a canny operator. It is unclear whether his interests lie with militant Islam or with his own personal stature.
This whole plan has a lot of “ifs” – if Ansar Dine drops AQIM, if the MNLA and Bamako agree, if the intervention ever gets rolling, etc. The problem in Mali is not fundamentally one of Islamic radicalism. It is one of state weakness and dysfunction. The weakness of the state allowed for a rebellion which the Islamists used to their advantage. If a solution is to be found to the current problem, it will lie in strengthening the organs of the Malian state, whether by federalized institutions or not. A flexible approach is absolutely imperative.
This has only been a brief overview. I intend to explore the situation in Mali in more depth over the coming weeks.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.