In June, the African Union (AU) Peace & Security Council called upon the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to endorse the deployment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Standby Force to ensure the security of the transitional institutions; restructure and reorganize the Malian security and defense forces; and restore State authority over the northern part of the country and combat terrorist and criminal networks. In response, the Security Council passed Resolution 2056 (2012) this past Thursday, but stopped short of authorizing an ECOWAS force to intervene in Mali. Instead, the Security Council expressed its readiness to “further examine the request of ECOWAS once additional information has been provided regarding the objectives, means and modalities of the envisaged deployment and other possible measures.” In other words, the UN has not ruled out endorsing military intervention in Mali with a UN mandate, but if it is to do so at some point in the future, it needs some sense that ECOWAS has thought through this rather complicated affair.
And the Security Council has a point. Amid concerns that Mali’s north may become the “next Somalia” or the “Afghanistan of West Africa,” groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (Ansar Dine and MUJWA – Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) continue to hold territory – including major cities in the north. Meanwhile, the transition from military to constitutional rule in the south has largely failed, and there are few indications that the political vacuum that exists in Bamako will be resolved any time soon. These concurrent crises make a military intervention of any kind very complex.
Nigeria, Niger, and Senegal have pledged to provide most of the 3,300 troops that ECOWAS hopes to deploy. Their initial mission would be to bolster Mali’s armed forces and stabilize political institutions, and turn to retaking the north if ongoing negotiations with Tuareg rebels in Burkina Faso fail. However, they may not even get that far. Persistently opposed to foreign intervention, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has requested that Mali’s army receive foreign support – but not foreign troops – to restore Mali’s territorial integrity. But the small problem with this is that, at least for the United States, it is technically illegal to allocate security force assistance when a military has seized power by unconstitutional means. Furthermore, giving into Sanogo’s wishes means the international community would be, in essence, sanctioning his unconstitutional seizure of power, while diminishing its leverage to get him out of the picture. It’s a game of chicken – with each side seeing how bad things up north can get before the other gives in.
While the UN mulled authorization of an ECOWAS intervention this week, about 2,000 protesters demonstrated in Bamako, calling for a military intervention in the north. According to Al-Jazeera, a leader of a northern citizens’ collective was quoted as saying “If the army doesn’t want to go to war, then give us the means to liberate our territory!” Mali’s National Assembly joined in, issuing a statement calling for the “restoration of territorial integrity,” and calling on the Malian people for “implacable resistance to the occupation and boosting solidarity by all possible means.”
At least in rhetoric, the Malian army is on board with restoring the country’s territorial integrity. Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra conducted a review of the army in Ségou in early June, and military preparations were observed in Sévaré, which is just south of the de facto border of Azawad and what remains of Mali. Yet, just like before the coup, the armed forces will be unevenly matched in the fight for the north. In fact, one can argue that they are worse off than before – still lacking the training, equipment, and air support that contributed to their inability to defeat the Tuareg rebels before the coup. Except now, in addition to being cut off from security force assistance from foreign partners, it faces a plethora of armed groups – some of which possess arms not only from Libya, but also from the stockpiles abandoned by the Malian army as it fled south in late March/early April.
In closing, I would highly recommend reading two great sources on political/military intervention in Mali. The first is “Why Mali’s Path to Peace Must Start in the South” by Todd Moss. This is a brief post written about two weeks ago that lays out several helpful assumptions about Mali’s distinct but inter-related crises, and offers a sequenced approach to addressing these crises. It’s well-thought out and well-argued, and gets at some of the difficult issues that need to be resolved in order to improve the situation in Mali. The second is “Intervening in Mali: West African Nations Plan Offensive against Islamists and Tuareg Rebels” by Andrew McGregor. The most helpful parts of this article are where the author analyzes the likely current capabilities of Mali’s army, gives an overview of the various armed groups that are proliferating in northern Mali (aside from AQIM, MUJWA, and the MNLA), and offers a nascent concept of operations for how Mali would go about recapturing the north – and how foreign military support might fit into these plans.