Regional Confrontation Looms in Mali

ECOWAS defense chiefs
ECOWAS defense chiefs

Support in the UN and Europe is growing for a west African military force to push out the entrenched Arab terrorists and drug dealing groups in northern Mali.

The developing plan to oust the terrorists forces controlling northern Mali is moving forward, with regional security talks in Bamako starting on 19 October and a meeting between the Algerian and French Presidents on the following day.

So far, much of the effort has gone on military and logistical coordination, without much thought on any side about the equally important question of political strategy.

There is a danger that a poorly conceived military campaign could draw many states in the region into a lengthy and bloody conflict, at least as catastrophic as Somalia’s two-decade civil war. If anything, the prognosis for West Africa is more ominous than it was in the mid-1990s for Somalia.

It is more complex and less self-contained than the Somali crisis. Local jihadists, Ansar Eddine and the Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO), have secured most of the key centres in northern Mali, where they profit from highly lucrative drugs, arms and people smuggling operations.

Their close allies from Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (dominated by Algerians) are now well entrenched. United Nations experts report collaboration on military training, bomb-making and arms shipments between the Arab terrorists in northern Mali and groups such as Boko Haram from Nigeria.

On 15 October European foreign ministers commissioned a plan to deploy 150 senior military trainers to work with Mali’s national army. The aim is to rebuild the army, whose command structures, discipline and fighting capability have disintegrated over the past nine months. The ministers want the plan finalised for their 19 November meeting.

The multiple layers of negotiation for the 3,300-strong intervention force from Ecowas member states underlines its complexity. The operation over a desert region the size of France will require formidable logistics and airpower. On the West African side, Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara as new Chairman of Ecowas is the titular leader of the intervention, but he faces a new insurgency at home from forces loyal to ousted President Laurent Gbagbo. Reports that Gbagbo’s forces may be teaming up with dissident Malian fighters and jihadist groups may have increased his determination to intervene.

Ghana is preparing for elections on 7 December and Senegal’s President Macky Sall says his army is over stretched. Mauritania’s military is in crisis, after the purportedly accidental shooting of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

Algeria’s intelligence on AQIM and its role in regional security (it has said publicly that it will not join the intervention) will be top of the agenda in the meeting in Algiers between Presidents Abdelaziz Bouteflika and François Hollande on 20 October.

Nigeria, with the biggest military in the region, was the leading force in previous Ecowas interventions. However, it is currently grappling with Boko Haram’s insurgency in its northern states, which may limit its practical contribution.

The UN’s overarching role in the intervention was established on 12 October, when the Security Council gave Ecowas and the African Union a 45-day deadline to produce a detailed plan. This will set out ‘means and modalities’ – strategy and a breakdown of the personnel and budget needed to launch the intervention.