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