What Mali’s Crisis Means for the Future of Western Military Intervention

With the U.S., France and neighboring West African nations all poised to help Mali's beleaguered government reclaim the north of the country from rebels and extremist groups, the planned intervention is drawing comparisons to other recent imbroglios

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Frederic Sautereau / laif / Redux

Refugees from northern Mali, fleeing Islamist extremists violence, have just arrived in the neighboring Niger on Oct. 23, 2012

Why should Americans care about Mali? Many probably asked themselves that question during the last presidential debate, when Mitt Romney twice mentioned the northwest African nation, a place most Americans might be hard-pressed to locate on a map. Yet seven months after Islamic militant groups seized control of northern Mali, the Western-designed military strategy to push them out could have real consequences for future antiterrorist operations, including for the U.S., according to some analysts. As the pieces steadily fall into place for a military assault on northern Mali, the intervention could serve as a model for future conflicts, at a time when Americans and Europeans have no appetite to fight another war. “We’re moving to a form of intervention which is much more typical of the post-Afghanistan era than anything we have seen before,” says François Heisbourg, a special advisor to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “If you are looking at future military interventions, it will not be like Iraq and Afghanistan.”

(MORE: Will the World Go to War to Save Mali?)

The objective is clear: to seize back control of northern Mali — an area the size of Texas — and crush the Islamic militants who have controlled it since last April. As a measure of how urgent the West believes the situation is, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Algiers on Monday to try to lock in President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s support for a military assault across his border, with an aide telling reporters on the plane headed to Algeria’s capital that the country was “a critical partner” in dealing with al-Qaeda in North Africa. And last Wednesday U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters in Washington that the U.S. had to “ensure that al-Qaeda has no place to hide and that we have to continue to go after them.”

That will not be easy — especially since no Western troops will be deployed on the ground. The plan, crafted in a frenzy of diplomatic activity in Africa during the past two weeks, will instead rely on about 3,200 West African troops, together with 3,000 Malian troops trained by the E.U. Many of the West African troops are Nigerian, who have little experience in fighting across the remote, vast desert that characterizes northern Mali. In a French-led resolution at the U.N. on Oct. 12, African countries have until late November to craft a plan to get the Islamic groups out of northern Mali. Behind the scenes, U.S. and French Special Forces are increasingly involved in training and advising African militaries, according to Heisbourg, in advance of the attack, which could come early next year. And French officials have said they would likely deploy unarmed surveillance drones of the kind the U.S. already has at hand in the area.

But all that leaves out the region’s biggest military player: Algeria. Until now, Bouteflika has vowed to sit out the conflict, just as he did in last year’s war against Muammar Gaddafi in next-door Libya. The Algerian leader has good reason to fear getting involved: an all-out war by Algeria against al-Qaeda could spark conflict at home, in a country that is still recovering from a bitter, bloody civil war during the 1990s that claimed at least 150,000 lives. Algerian officials last week announced they were deploying more troops along their 1,200-mile border with Mali, but only in order to stop Islamic militants from escaping to Algeria once a military assault begins.

With no Algerian forces deployed, that assault force will be far weaker. A recent report on Mali’s crisis by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that Algeria was “in a unique position to influence events in Mali.” Others agree. “There is no other country which has the military strength of Algeria,” says Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa analyst for the Eurasia Group in London. “It has the biggest military in the region. It could commit troops and fight the Islamist — no one else can do it. But it does not want to.”

There are other challenges to victory too: since a coup in Mali last March, the government in Bamako, the capital, has been held together by a fragile coalition of civilians and military. It was in the midst of that turmoil that Islamic extremists aligned to al-Qaeda in the Maghreb joined with Tuareg tribesmen, who have long held grievances against Mali’s government, to seize the country’s northern half.

(MORE: Gaddafi’s Posthumous Gift to Mali: The Tuareg Seize Timbuktu)

Armed with sophisticated weaponry from Gaddafi’s massive arsenals, and flush with cash from hostage-ransom deals and drug smuggling, the Islamists have extended their grip on the area — and now pose a real threat to the rest of North Africa, and potentially also to Europe, a short distance away. About 300,000 people have fled the area, bringing reports of harsh Shari‘a law, where women are banned from walking in public without male companions and musicians have been threatened with amputation if they continue playing instruments. Among the patchwork of groups are some with clear ambitions to impose Shari‘a in the rest of North Africa — an alarming prospect to the U.S. and Europe, as well as to Algeria, whose Western military cooperation makes them a prime target for jihadist groups.

To U.S. and European officials, the true danger is that northern Mali might become another Afghanistan before September 2001 — a wild, tribal area where fundamentalist outfits and terrorist groups have free rein to train for operations abroad. French officials — with extensive business interests in the area — have been particularly alarmed at the situation. Six French hostages are currently being held in northern Mali, and Islamist leaders have threatened to kill them if an international military intervention begins.

One major challenge for both the West and African countries will be to distinguish which groups in northern Mali they will want to crush and which might possibly be won over. “It’s not like in Pakistan where you know who is who,” Heisbourg says. “Some who look like baddies are not. Some of these guys you want to talk over, and others you want to kill.” He says that although both U.S. and French drones could prove valuable aids in a military assault, neither will be of much help in the actual attacks. “Making that distinction about who is who is something you probably cannot do from 10,000 ft. up in the air,” he says. Instead the West will have to hope that African troops will be able to do the job.

MORE: Timbuktu’s Destruction: Why Islamists Are Wrecking Mali’s Cultural Heritage

16 comments
FrederickDelk
FrederickDelk

My Story4

I just recently had a incident with the Metro Manila police, Philippines.Sometime October 30, 2012 I put an advertisement in the Craig list Manila for a  ”Phone  Operator” position for my e-commerce business. November 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm we received a text from a young lady named ” I’ll call her Krystal” that she was interested in the position, and we set an appointment to meet 11.00 am at Starbucks the next day. November 6, 2012 my wife and I met with Krystal at Alabang Town Center Mall. As we were talking, a group of about eight or more unidentified male persons and one female approached us and one of them told me that Krystal was a missing person, that Krystal’s relatives was with them looking for her and that we need to go with them to clear the matter. In order to clarify the matters and also help Krystal who we believed was a missing person, we agreed to go with the group; Upon reaching the parking lot, these person informed us that they are the policeman and that we are being arrested for violating the CYBERCRIME LAW.These person did not show us any warrant of arrest, they did not show any proper identification like an ID or police badge. My wife and I were immediately forced to board an unmarked white motor vehicle, I felt I was being kidnapped. Couple hours later we arrived to a place that  looked like a police station in Metro Manila.. Once inside the police station, we were herded to a office and interrogated by a police officer whom we believed was the station commander. We were charge with Human Trafficking under the Philippine Cybercrime law. The Officer said our bail will be 200,000 pesos each about 5,000 dollars and we were looking at a long time in prison. I asked to call a lawyer and the U.S Embassy, but every time we used the phone it was a busy signal. After several hours of threats and intimidation, one of the cops became like a good cop and said that he and I were friends and he wanted to help us settle the matter. The good cop said he could make a deal with the complainant to make this all go away.I was curious what type of deal he could make, but I was also concern about being charge with bribery. The good cop asked us how much we were willing to pay, and I said, I only have 10,000 pesos which is about 250 dollars. The police became angry and said the complainant wanted 200,000 pesos 5000 dollars to drop the charges. I told myself this is not about some law I broken, this was pure Extortion, taking advantage of me because I was a foreigner. This was a set up, I told my wife and  I wanted to fight this, that I didn’t mind staying in jail overnight. But of course my wife wasn’t to crazy about staying in jail. After several hours, my wife cousin arrived at the police station, but I thought he would have a lawyer with him. To start the negotiation my cousin suggest we buy food for all the cops in the station. I really didn’t agreed with this, but I think this was the filipino way. Anyway, my wife’s cousin went to the nearest Jollibee fast food restaurant  and ordered 2000 peso about 50 dollars worth of food. As I saw the cops eat around me, I thought to myself maybe this will work a little bit. My wife’s cousin began to negotiate with the police, everyone was speaking in filipino, after living in this country for ten years I still didn’t know the language. After convincing the police that we had very little money, the settlement was reduce to 100,000 pesos or 2500 dollars. But that was still to much for me, I wanted much lower. It was getting very late, my stalling tactics was frustrating everybody, police were getting tired, they wanted to go home. We were able to get the settlement down to 50.000 pesos or 1,250 dollars, However I had one big problem, there was a 20,000 pesos withdrawal limit with the Philippine bank atm system. When I told the police that I can pay them 20,000 pesos now and bring them back 30,000 pesos in the morning they declined on that deal. Now my wife and I had to stay in jail overnight. The police officers proceeded to escort my wife and I to the back of the building, where they had the holding cell. When I got my first glance at the holding cell I was in a state of total shock, I have never seen anything like this in my life. They had 4 women and 8 men in the same holding cell. I protest, “There is no way my wife is going to stay in there!” One of the police commented, “You are in a third world country.” I told my wife if they had shown me the jail cells earlier I probably would have paid the money within the first hour of being in the station. I had to figure out how to get out of here, my wife was visibly frightened, I felt terrible that my wife had to experience this. They put me in with the 8 other guys and my wife had to walk through the men side to get to the female side of the cell which was separated by bars. I’m saying, the guys had full view of the girls, there were no privacy for the females. All the guys introduced themselves to me. There were two Chinese citizens in jail for trafficking in 10 kilos of shabu or in America we call it Crystal Methaphetamine. There was a Malaysian in jail for trafficking 2 kilo of shabu, a Pakistani in on drug charges and a few filipinos, with one filipino  arrested for having one kilo of shabu  in his car, but he didn’t know it was there. Anyhow, I had to check on my wife, my wife and I went to the corner, where the bars met, set down on the floor. I reached through the bars to grabbed my wife’s hands and I told her we will be out of here in the morning. There was a communal atmosphere in the jail, The lead prisoner in the cell said that we share everything here, you can’t eat alone, all food must be shared, even the jail guards ate the food of the prisoners. One of the inmates wanted a pizza, the jail guard ordered the pizza and it was shared by everyone. If you don’t have the money to chip in, then you will be the servant, cleaning the cells, the shower room or preparing the food for everyone including the guards. To make this story short, the next morning you couldn’t tell if it was a beautiful morning or not because we didn’t have  windows. One thing I learn is not to ever get family involved, because the police had my wife’s cousin contact number and was able to manipulate the cousin to get more money. Instead of the 50,000 pesos we agreed with the night before, it went up to 95,000 pesos or 2,400 dollars the next afternoon.” Frederick Delk, you and your wife can leave now!” one of the jailers said.” My wife and I were made to sign a page in the police blogger that we were “unmolested” financially and that no physical harm was done. It was around 1:45 pm. Afterwards, I grabbed my wife and said,”Let’s get the hell out of here honey!” For more information go to http://frederickdelk.com

FrederickDelk
FrederickDelk

My name is Frederick Delk an American citizen from Virginia Beach, Virginia. I now live in the Philippines and I have three children and a beautiful wife. I choose to live in the Philippines because (!) the cost of living in the Philippine is much less compare to the states. (2) The Philippines have thousands of islands and beautiful beaches. (3) The Philippine weather is warm and balmy year round.(4) The people are mostly friendly and very hospitable.

However, in my wildest imagination . I didn’t expect to be falsely accused by police in metro Manila of Human Trafficking under the CyberCrime law. My wife and I were illegally arrested without a warrant. No proper ID or badge was produce. These persons immediately forced us into an unmarked white vehicle, I thought i was being kidnapped.

During our time in the police station we were intimidated, harassed  and threatened until we paid 95,000 pesos or 2,400 dollars for our freedom. The fear of not knowing what can happen next, my wife and I suffered anxiety, shock and sleepless nights out of fear for our safety and our family. The fact the Police had my home address, I have deep security concerns. Because I paid the Police money, it was reasonable   to think the Police would come after me at my home residence every four or six months to get more money.

It was a difficult decision to file a Police report, I did not want any trouble, but I just can’t crawl under a rock and hope the problem would go away. I knew sooner or later, It didn’t matter what decision I make, my life as a private citizen was over,.                                                              . My Story page has more details what happen that day. My main objective is justice, see that the perpetrators get what they deserve and to make sure that other Filipinos and foreigners want become victims of police corruption.

arvay
arvay

It's good to remember that absent our failed "nation building" enterprises in Iraq and Afghanistan, and backing for anything Israel does, we would have a much easier time getting cooperation in stopping these kinds of bandit operations. We're tainted and no government like that on Algeria can risk openly working with us without arousing the ire of people who are upset at our invasions of Muslim-majority nations. It would take multiple "Libyas" to start to reverse this reputation we've built. 

Now, in addition to the human losses, we're seeing world heritage sites  destroyed. 

PlumbLine
PlumbLine

.........the point is, things on the earth are going to get worse........the seas and the waves roaring, wars, famines, pestilence, earthquakes, nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, persecution of christians will increase, immorality will get worse.........all signs pointing to Christs return and a call to repentance, before Gods Judgement comes, and the end of times as we know it..........We are closing in on the great tribulation period the Bible talks about in the book of Revelations........But whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord, will be saved.........Do it today........and be ready no matter what comes upon the earth........................

sahelsounds
sahelsounds

it's not really that much of a challenge to take back the north -- i worry that this has become a diplomatic game with varied interests. 'crushing the islamic militants' would take only a bit of financing. ansar dine are small in number andhave no popular support. the bulk of their army is simply paid mercenaries who will abandon ansar dine ideology in a second if the winds change...any of us who know northern mali know better than this fear mongering myth of ideology...

C_Marti
C_Marti

RT @ArnaudContreras La veille ces femmes avaient traversé la frontière #Mali #Niger et mon micro fondait ou pleurait http://t.co/WBKQf3dV

MShamandy
MShamandy

@welakrat يعني مالي تستدعي تدخل عاجل وسوريا لا!!! ملهمش غير مصالحهم ولاد التي دول

Kiconcoa
Kiconcoa

@stevekuriigamba so hw do we get Algeria, wz her biggest military on board? nthing 2save ths troubled nation @corriemwende @JuwelsM @ombui

jon2bad
jon2bad

@naureenshah it will necessarily be appreciably worse as a strategic concern. more of a HR disaster. but I'm no expert

jon2bad
jon2bad

@naureenshah southern Algerian-Mali-Niger border has been center of illegal trafficking, lack of gov't for a long time, so I don't think(1/2

jon2bad
jon2bad

@7our there's also a solid argument that drones (or the way they're used) aren't good at distinguishing militants from civilians in Pakistan

tweetsintheME
tweetsintheME

@7our but they can help you spot a technical.

jon2bad
jon2bad

@7our funny how geographic analogies alternate between "area the size of Texas" and "area the size of France"

KimberlyDJaime
KimberlyDJaime

Please tell me why this story start's off saying that refugees from northern mali arrived in niger Oct 23, 2012. Fleeing from Islamist extremist violence.

But in the middle of the article it states in the 8th paragraph -  U.S. and European officials, the true danger is that northern Mali might become another Afghanistan before September 2001 — a wild, tribal area where fundamentalist outfits and terrorist groups have free rein to train for operations abroad.We are in October 2012,  I am kind of hoping that it is a misprint...I would really hate to think that it has taken 10yrs to do anything in Mali

Are we interested because the Islamic extremist have 6 french hostages and they will kill them if there is any kind of intervention THEN THE FRENCH HOSTAGES WILL BE KILLED! ! 

PLEASE TELL ME THAT WE ARE NOT GETTING INVOLVED OVER FRENCH HOSTAGES...WHEN THEY DID NOT WANT TO HELP THE USA & UK IN THIS WAR.(KUWAIT, OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM, AFGHANISTAN).

row1519
row1519

I suppose you now understand what the sentence means. Namely, that if nothing is done in Mali today, that that country would look like Afganistan did in 2001.