Why sorting out Mali remains an uphill task

West African nation is considering military action to rein in Islamist fighters but major hurdles persist.

Mali and its allies have finally come together and decided to go to war. Now it’s just a matter of planning as the campaign should start in a matter of weeks. 

The objective: To rid Mali of armed groups which have occupied two-thirds of its northern territory.

Yet until now only one thing seems certain – war. This at a time when there’re more questions than answers regarding a host of issues.

The first question is whether Mali itself is politically capable and militarily ready to lead the campaign as it is supposed to do.

The coup that toppled Mali’s civilian government in March has plunged the already poor African nation into political instability.

Months of divisions led to the creation of a loose national unity government.

And though the military junta initially seemed to relinquish power and to hand it to the civilians, it still holds key posts in the cabinet, maintaining a right to get individuals of its choice appointed. The current prime minister, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, is seen as a case in point.

So Mali right now is run by a fragile transitional government unable so far even to sort out its own internal divisions or to decide on a final date for democratic elections.

Who will fight the war?

Another pertinent question is: Who will fight this war? France and other Western partners declined to send any troops saying this is a purely African affair. It remains to be seen how many troops Mali’s neighbours are ready to commit to this war. The unofficial figure of 3,000 mentioned so far is way short of the mark, according to experts.

The Europeans and the UN said they would help with some logistics but to what extent? And how many military trainers or civilian experts will they need to put on the ground in order to make sure the operation succeeds?

The question of funds is another key issue. No estimates have been released yet and no specific contributions have been announced. And Mali is not Kuwait or Iraq or Libya with the magic wand of oil.

So what are the plans for the long term future?

The problem in northern Mali is not just the existence of armed groups. Things in that desert region have gone wrong since Mali’s independence from France in 1960.

The region has suffered total marginalisation at every level. The issue of Touareg and Arab minorities there has never been seriously addressed. They have been struggling for equal rights for half a century now. They will not simply be silenced by a military defeat. They will remain an obstacle to stability until their grievances are properly redressed.

The nationalist movement for the liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, the main Touareg group, have recently sent messages saying they are ready to renounce their earlier claim of independence. That’s an encouraging sign and it should be immediately welcomed.

But there’re still unresolved questions. What are the criteria that will help determine that the planned war has achieved its goals, especially if the armed groups adopt the Taliban-style tactics, disappearing quickly from civilian centres only to hide in mountain caves and launch an endless war of attrition?

Meeting’s purpose

Friday’s meeting in the capital Bamako of representatives from the EU, the UN, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, was not meant to take final decisions on the Malian crisis.

Its main purpose was to seriously raise these questions and at least show its strong willingness to find adequate answers to them.

It was clear, however, that the drive for military action was much stronger than cool headed, rational thinking about whether war could be avoided at any rate.

The traditional stance of “no talking with terrorists” was chanted loud in every meeting and in every statement to the media.

The offer to talk with the nationalist Toureg movement MNLA was not stressed as a priority.

The die is cast and within a little less than 40 days an elaborate war plan must be submitted to the UN Security Council.

And if war does take place this may be the first time since World War II that African troops will be deployed in parts of the great Sahara Desert – a bleak, hostile and borderless territory the size of the United States. It’s an area they know little about and for which they might be the least prepared.

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