Knee-Jerk Intervention In Mali Is Not The Answer


US President Barack Obama’s inaugural claim that "a decade of war is now ending" seems optimistic at best — and dangerously naive at worst. While the US and UK have scheduled troop withdrawals in the protracted conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq, the death toll is rising in Syria (recent UN figures estimate 60,000), and several states have now entered the conflict against rebel and terrorist forces in Mali.

Commentators were quick to applaud France’s decision to intervene in Mali. French President François Hollande has been called a "hero", and many approved of his statement to "destroy" terrorists in Mali in the wake of the going unrest. "We have just one enemy", he said, "the terrorism that threatens not just Mali, but the whole of Africa and undoubtedly Europe." 

Doesn’t this rhetoric sound familiar? If it seems like we’ve heard it all before, that’s because we have. It was a different conflict, involving a different Western leader, but the language used is all too similar: "We will not rest until terrorist groups of global reach have been found, have been stopped, and have been defeated". 

President Bush’s 6 November 2001 speech was initially lauded as a successful rally to arms, yet history has proven that the subsequent war in Afghanistan has caused more problems than it solved.

In deploying troops to Mali, France has failed to understand the lessons of its counterparts in the Middle East.

There are other issues that have somehow escaped the focus of most of the media’s coverage of events in Mali. For one thing, why haven’t we heard more about where Mali’s rebels and terrorists sourced their arms in the first place?

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan has labelled the uprisings in Mali as "collateral damage" from Libya. Indeed, The Guardian reports that Tuareg fighters — once part of the Libyan army — trafficked weapons and other arms back to Mali after Gaddafi’s regime collapsed. 

Even Clinton acknowledges the influx of weapons from Libya to Mali. "There’s no doubt that the Malian remnants of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has [sic]weapons from Libya," she told a senate foreign relations committee.

Of course, it is difficult to say whether the intervention in Libya led to the heightened activity of terrorists and rebels in Mali. One thing is clear: the fallout from the NATO-led intervention was not handled as well as we’d hoped, and instead has led to the movement of arms into Mali.

The UN realised this as early as 20 June 2011. The Secretary-General then noted that weapons transfer from Libyan Arab Jamahiriya "into the hands of terrorists in the Sahel band" could risk "destabilising" the region.

This startling fact has not prevented Clinton from endorsing military intervention in Mali, just as she endorsed US intervention in Libya to secure the downfall of Gaddafi.

Along with members of the African Union, the US has praised French President Hollande’s expeditious militaristic response. Clinton has said that the US should help to control the "spreading jihadist threat" in North Africa.

On its surface, the decision for policy makers to respond to the growing instability in Mali was presented in simplistic terms: intervene, or risk Islamist jihadists overtaking Mali, and in turn, the rest of Africa. Framed in this way, any reluctance on the part of the French to act, and act now, would have been labelled as callous cowardice.

Few stopped to consider the more complicated nature of the turmoil in North Africa. To label the security threat in Mali as solely the activity of terrorists is misleading. Thrown into the mix are separatist Tuareg rebels, who form the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA).

Again and again, states adopt knee jerk responses to countervail terrorist activities, without first assessing their repercussions. We confuse swift action for solutions, air strikes for resolutions.

Instead of intervening in one country, and then dealing with the unintended consequences by intervening in another country, US and French leaders need to confront the intrinsic, underlying issues in North Africa as in the Middle East — including arms control.

Required reading for politicians and analysts alike should begin include this article from Foreign Affairs, warning against the crude oversimplification of the nature of insurgent forces in Mali; the Washington Post’s story outlining how the insurgents responsible for overthrowing Mali’s Touré government in 2012 were actually trained by US officers as part of decade-long counterterrorism efforts; and this article from The Independent, which points out that it was French rule which led to "bitterness" between the Tuareg and other groups in Mali.

We are only beginning to appreciate the legacy of the last decade’s wars. 2013 does not signal the end of over ten years of conflict, as President Obama might have hoped. Western states have again entered into a complicated conflict in North Africa. Whether the fallout from Mali will play out in yet another country will turn on whether states are prepared to learn their lessons from the past.

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