Don’t make the same anti-terrorism mistakes in Mali

Balancing the interests of stakeholders in the Malian polity will be difficult, however some key steps should be taken.

inside story - battle to retake mali
'The Malian government, the French military and the international community have an obligation to avoid clumping together the innocent with the guilty,' writes Moseley [Reuters]

International efforts to combat terrorism on the battle field have yielded dubious results over the past decade. While recent al-Qaeda linked rebel advances in central Mali have been followed by a swift Franco-Malian counter offensive, the international community needs to be deliberate in order to avoid the same errors of the past decade of anti-terrorism activity.

Mali succumbed to a coup d’état in March of last year when disgruntled military officers removed a democratically elected president who was within a few months of leaving office. The power vacuum created by the coup allowed Tuareg rebels to seize control of the northern two-thirds of the country in the hope of creating an autonomous ethnic state known as Azawad.

Tuareg ethnic insurgents, principally led by a group known as the MNLA (French acronym for National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) were subsequently displaced by different Islamist groups, some with ties to al-Qaeda. Islamist groups, such as Ansar Dine, were less concerned with territorial autonomy than the ability to impose sharia law in the northern regions of the country. That said, there have been concerns that other Islamist groups, such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), a splinter group of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), were really in the game to create a new haven for terrorist operations. This is a situation of some concern to the USA but more importantly to France given geographic proximity, colonial ties and economic interests in the region.

The significance of Konna

The taking of the town of Konna (60 km northeast of Mopti) on January 10 by Islamist rebel forces was significant. To be clear, fears that the rebels could march all the way to the capital city, Bamako, were overblown. While it was one thing to take and control the least populated regions of the country, some 90 percent of Mali’s population lives to the south and west of the central town of Mopti. Moving southwest into much more densely populated regions of the country, and into areas that are deeply unfriendly to the rebel cause, would have meant stiff resistance.

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The significance of the push south, even if it was incremental and not sustained, was that it implied that the leadership of the rebellion (if it was not clear already) was no longer prioritising the goal of an ethnic state known as Azawad. This was evident for at least two reasons. First, while the idealised boundaries of a hypothetical state known as Azawad were vague, many would not include Mopti in this territory because there were few Tuaregs who historically resided there. Second, moving closer to Mopti was a major public relations blunder almost guaranteed to negate any outside support for a new Azawad state. Pushing beyond the territory of Azawad suggested some other goal, such as the tactical aim of destroying the airport in Sevare (adjacent to Mopti) to prevent an air supported counter offensive, or a desire to incite a reckless Western-led reaction that might eventually breed more local support for the Islamists (more on this later). 

The risk to innocent civilians

While it is abundantly clear that certain Islamist groups are calling the shots in the North, conversations with Malians in the south of the country suggest that many continue to make little or no distinction between three distinct assemblages in the North: Tuareg civilians who are just trying to live their lives; Tuareg rebels (largely represented by the MNLA) who initiated the rebellion to create an autonomous state; and Islamists who support sharia law and often have connections to groups outside the country. Many Malians blame the MNLA for initiating the rebellion and problematically conflate them with innocent Tuareg civilians and Islamist groups.

This failure to consistently distinguish between different groups in the North by multiple stakeholders (including the interim Malian government and its army backers, a significant proportion of the population in the south, and many international observers) portends longer term trouble for the significant military drive to push back the rebels begun by France this past weekend. Because of this unwillingness to differentiate, military initiatives – which must necessarily involve the Malian military in ground operations – stand a good probability of inflicting high levels of collateral damage, particularly on innocent Tuareg civilians who are likely to be unfairly associated with the Islamist rebels.

This potential collateral damage should be of deep concern for at least three reasons. First and foremost, the Malian government, the French military and the international community have an obligation to avoid clumping together the innocent with the guilty in order to avert the loss of life and human rights abuses amongst blameless civilians. Second, if there was no significant support amongst Tuaregs for an independent state known as Azawad before, collateral damage amongst innocent civilians will tend to foster this. Third, anti-terrorism efforts in other parts of the world involving an outside military component have only ever succeeded on the narrow grounds of disabling military capacity and have largely failed when it comes to building peaceful regions under democratic governance. 

Moving forward

What Mali needs in order to move forward are at least three measures. First, the twin towns of Mopti-Severe in central Mopti are home to over a 100,000 people, including a large number of internally displaced refugees, who deserve protection from potential rebel reprisals (and the same would go for any other major cities, such as Gao, liberated in the coming days). Armed UN peacekeepers should be dispatched to the region immediately to perform this role. While this is perhaps a slight nuance, defending a region from insurgents is typically less problematic than advancing into an area to reclaim it.

Second, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo really must step aside. Not only did he topple a democratically elected leader (which was wrong irrespective of corruption concerns at the time), his presence as the real power behind the sham interim government necessarily limits broad international support for external assistance in this difficult time. Related to Sanogo’s departure must be a clear plan for creating a legitimate interim government in Bamako.

Third, an unambiguous plan for a peace process in the North must be developed which includes armed UN peace keepers across the major urban centres of the provinces of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal and a referendum on the future status of this region. While the rebels would almost certainly lose such an election if it were well-monitored, the process itself would be important for moving forward on a path to peace and reconciliation. 

This last step is likely to be unpopular with many stakeholders, including the Malian military which seeks revenge for previous defeats in the North, Islamist groups who are likely to do poorly in a free and fair referendum, outside terrorist organisations who care little about the future of Mali, and the international community who will likely balk at the price tag of doing it right. Let us hope against hope that all will see the wisdom of acting deliberately and thoughtfully in order to insure long term peace and stability of Mali.

William G Moseley is a Professor of Geography and African Studies at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA.  He has worked and undertaken research in Mali for the past 25 years.