Will the World Go to War to Save Mali?

The French say an intervention is a "matter of weeks" away — but what would it look like, and how may it backfire?

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People hold banners during a protest called by the Coordination of Patriotic Organizations in Mali against foreign military intervention in Mali to reclaim the Islamist-controlled north on Sept. 28, 2012

Another clash with global consequences looms, apart from the awful conflagration in war-ravaged Syria. On Oct. 12, following weeks of French pressure, the U.N. Security Council set a 45-day deadline for intervention into Mali, the northwest African nation that has seen roughly half its territory overrun by rebels and militias with links to al-Qaeda’s North African wing, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian insisted on Tuesday that it was a “matter of weeks, not months” before decisive action would be taken to reclaim a vast stretch of desert and semiarid scrubland that has become a “terrorist sanctuary.” The instability of the past half-year in Mali has sparked fears on both sides of the Mediterranean of a broader regional crisis. Six French nationals are currently being held hostage in the Sahel. Only “the integrity of Mali,” said Le Drian, “assures Europe’s security.”

Metaphors of doom now swirl in what was once one of Africa’s democratic success stories. Some say that Mali is the next Somalia, where a patchwork of warlords and insurgents ranges itself against a dysfunctional, crisis-hit state. Others say it is the next Afghanistan, where extremist militias, some with jihadist connections, make hay in a security vacuum, arming and funding themselves through illicit drug-smuggling networks. (Islamist groups in control of historic Saharan entrepôts such as the cities of Timbuktu and Gao have instituted Shari‘a and, like the Afghan Taliban a decade ago, destroyed ancient tombs and relics considered idolatrous within their own puritanical creed.) And now it may be the next Libya — where only foreign military intervention, framed as humanitarian action, can stabilize a steadily deteriorating state of affairs.

(MORE: Why Islamists Are Wrecking Timbuktu)

Still, despite the confidence of the French Defense Minister, concrete action looks far away. The U.N. Security Council resolution calls on the Malian government and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which includes Mali, to jointly prepare a plan to retake the country’s north. While ECOWAS nations all share concerns over the havoc in Mali spreading across its borders, there are pronounced deficits in trust between various parties. Moreover, as related in a report published in late September by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, the ECOWAS armies are accustomed mostly to conflict in forested areas and will need considerable help to launch a successful campaign in the Malian Sahel. The bloc, says the ICG report, “displays a rhetorical ambition that goes beyond its capacity to deliver.”

The French and their European partners say they will provide training and logistical support to the Malian army but will not put any boots on the ground. Though it’s clear that most Western countries, especially the U.S., have no desire to get mired in yet another military imbroglio abroad, many analysts have difficulty imagining a successful operation into northern Mali without direct foreign — specifically French — assistance, involving possible air strikes and intelligence sharing. Considering the operational difficulties France faced during last year’s Libyan mission, it’s all the more likely the U.S. would be dragged into Mali’s conflict to some extent.

The abject mess the Malian army finds itself in doesn’t help, either: in March, disaffected units led by Captain Amadou Sanogo toppled the civilian government. A quashed countercoup in April involving some of its most crack regiments led to more fissures in the military. Power in the capital, Bamako, is now awkwardly shared by a civilian President and Prime Minister installed by ECOWAS as well as Sanogo, ensconced in the barracks town of Kati in Bamako’s environs. At the same time, an emboldened ethnic Tuareg insurgency, joined by Islamist factions and armed with weapons lifted from Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals in Libya, swept through the country’s restive north and declared it an independent country.

(MORE: Gaddafi’s Gift to Mali — Civil War)

“Mali’s army needs to be almost completely reformed,” says Andrew Lebovich, a researcher on North African and Sahel affairs based in Washington. “For years, parts of the army existed as a kind of patronage institution. Now some of the best-trained and -equipped segments of the military” — loyal to the previous civilian government — “have been effectively disbanded.”

Even if ECOWAS and Bamako launch an offensive, it’s hardly guaranteed to succeed. They’re up against experienced, hard-bitten fighters, used to maneuvering and slipping away in the Sahel’s terrain. “If the military skill set and political willpower is there,” says Gregory Mann, Mali expert and professor of history at Columbia University, “I imagine it would not be enormously difficult to remove these Islamist fighters from urban centers like Timbuktu and Gao.” What happens thereafter is a different matter, with the increased likelihood of al-Qaeda-backed actions in West African capitals. “A kind of urban guerrilla terrorism could emerge that we haven’t seen before in this region,” says Mann.

In another scenario, the ICG warns of the risk of ethnic and communal bloodletting:

In a worst-case scenario, chaos would break loose in Bamako, triggering the redeployment of the army, possibly led by even more radical commanders; the buffer zone between north and south would become the theatre of clashes between communal militias and armed Islamist groups; and atrocities would be committed against civilians. Another collapse of the state in Bamako would spread unrest throughout the country, as the regular army would be just as uncontrollable as the rebel militias and groups in the north.

But the worst-case scenario is not the most likely, and there’s still a chance political dialogue can stave off the military intervention that some believe is inevitable. That’s only possible, though, if the various camps in Bamako can achieve a semblance of consensus and, moreover, if some of the main elements among the insurgent forces, in particular the Islamist militia known as Ansar Dine, can be coaxed to abandon ties with AQIM and other jihadists.

However this plays out, once-democratic, pluralistic Mali will never be the same. In the past few months, those living under Islamist rule in the north have seen the rebels take over the basic trappings of the state; water pumps are made to run, a shell of a civil service remains. “What people are afraid of is the possibility that some Malians in the north may get used to these groups,” says Lebovich. In a settled peace, that means their agendas could stick. “A new reconstituted Mali may not be a secular Mali,” says Mann. “The country may have the same shape, but it would have a very different set of politics.”