Mali’s Crisis: Is the Plan for Western Intervention ‘Crap’?

Though significant differences over details remain, French officials tell TIME to expect an international intervention plan into Mali to get accepted by the U.N. before the year's end

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Harouna Traore / AP

A police officer pulls aside a protester during a demonstration in favor of an international military intervention to regain control of Mali's Islamist-controlled north in Bamako, Mali, on Dec. 8, 2012

There’s virtually total agreement within the international community that something must be done to force out the Islamist militants occupying northern Mali — an effort to both reunite the divided West African nation and eradicate the growing security and terrorist threat the extremists pose.

The best way of achieving this, however, is a topic of considerable debate. There’s a divide between French officials — who now say a U.N.-mandated operation for Mali will be approved before Christmas — and dubious U.S. officials like U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who reportedly called the intervention plan supported by France and African nations “crap.”

There’s even discord on how serious that disagreement is. Though French diplomats cheerfully acknowledge the “inimitable manner in which Susan Rice expresses her positions” on the Mali situation, foreign policy officials in Paris insist a U.N. agreement on intervention is quite close still. “There are 15 members of the Security Council, and at the moment 14 share France’s view,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French media on Dec. 16, gesturing to the U.S.’s lone stance. “We’re trying to find a position that can unite everyone.”

(MORE: Mali’s Looming War: Will Military Intervention Drive Out the Islamists?)

Good luck with that — especially given the increased alarm and hardening cynicism surrounding a political and security dilemma in Mali that features several layers of complexity.

That crisis began earlier this year when Tuareg separatists in northern Mali teamed up with Islamist radicals from across the Sahel region — including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — to rout the Malian army from the area. The insurgency took on greater momentum following a coup launched by army commanders in the capital Bamako, who blamed the rebels’ gains on the democratically elected government. Since then, junta officials have sought to tighten their hold on power under the fig leaf of a “national unity” cabinet including civil opponents. But that heavy-handed hypocrisy has only deepened divisions within Mali’s society and armed force — leaving the state even less capable of taking the north back from insurgents.

During that same period, in the meantime, Islamist radicals turned on their former Tuareg allies in northern Mali, and imposed a ruthless and sometimes violent reign of Shari‘a in certain cities under their control that has prompted over 400,000 to flee southward. That betrayal and seizure of power also created a haven for jihadist activity that French intelligence officials say is attracting a growing number of aspiring radicals from France itself.

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

As a result, acting to uproot radicals from northern Mali has become a security priority for Paris. France and the E.U. back a plan by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (A.U.) to deploy 3,300 soldiers from neighboring nations to reinforce Malian troops under a U.N. mandate. The E.U. also proposes sending around 400 military instructors to train additional Malian soldiers, plus 150 European troops as protection against attacks by extremists. French diplomats expect a Security Council resolution giving support to this endeavor by year’s end and deployment of international forces to northern Mali in August or September 2013.

As that unfolds, French officials say, pressure will increase on junta leaders in Bamako to agree to full democratic elections once the country is reunited.

“The mere arrival of European military trainers in Bamako as their first stop will represent a significant political development in this crisis — and a first step back to democracy,” a French government official involved in intervention discussions told TIME this month. “France and its partners want a political solution in Mali, but all political solutions in Mali will come in part through military action and pressure.”

Perhaps, but American strategists seem to doubt the ability of a few thousand modestly trained African forces to eradicate well-armed and mobile Islamist radicals in northern Mali, who may have as many as 3,000 fanatical core fighters; deep pockets from ransoming Western hostages and taking their cut in West Africa’s booming cocaine trade to buy more guns and easily bribe recruits; and vanish in and out of the Sahel landscape as if they own it — since they virtually do. Because of that, Americans argue a more powerful and better-planned military intervention must be prepared and accompanied by sufficient aid to remedy the humanitarian crisis, economic deprivation and free activity of smugglers and drug dealers plaguing the entire region. The U.S. also believes restoring democracy should be an initial step in any Malian operation.

French officials say they’d love nothing more — but with Mali effectively partitioned, there’d be no way to hold free elections for a truly national government until north-south reunification is achieved. Meantime, there may be some cynical advantages to the current Malian power arrangement. Despite international denunciation of the Dec. 11 arrest and forced resignation of Malian Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra by the military, diplomats in Paris confided the exit of the Premier — who’d become a divisive and problematic figure — might facilitate international efforts to resolve the crisis. Even U.S. officials said Diarra’s ouster wouldn’t alter U.N. efforts in dealing with Mali.

Indirect maneuvering and ulterior motives don’t stop there. Critics claim the interventionist haste of ECOWAS and the A.U. is driven by regional politicians wanting to prove they can deal with their own problems — something they failed to do in 2011, when contested voting in the Ivory Coast lead to a virtual civil war. And though Algeria — which long rejected any suggestion of international intervention — has begun warming to the idea, some analysts claim that change is cynical too. They say Algiers’ desire to influence intervention in Mali is largely limited to ensuring AQIM doesn’t return to its former haven in southern Algeria.

So is there any alternative to international intervention that all actors view necessary, but can’t agree on otherwise? Perhaps. Last month, negotiations began in Burkina Faso with two Tuareg rebel groups. The aim: to further drive a wedge between Islamist warlords of northern Mali and local Tuareg factions. To that end, Malian officials may consider according a degree of autonomy to the north in exchange for keeping Mali whole as a nation and getting Tuareg support to help a military offensive against Islamist occupiers.

French officials warn that those talks are slowgoing, in part because Tuareg leaders are repeatedly changing their minds about cooperating. But vexing as it may be, that indecision and hesitation in local negotiations is matched by similar vacillation on the international level — and may be the only option to military intervention.

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