July 30, 2012

Long "Weeks" Ahead In Northern Mali

After staving off an intervention in his own country, with special thanks to previously deployed UN peacekeepers, Alassane Ouattara appears to have accelerated the Economic Community of West African States's campaign into northern Mali. Visiting Paris to discuss bilateral policies with President Francois Hollande, Côte d'Ivoire's newest President and current chairman of ECOWAS would lay political and military cables over the weekend before taking his plans public.

“If the situation doesn’t evolve favorably and rapidly, yes, there will be a military intervention in Mali,” he said in response to Le Journal du Dimanche's first question. “It seems inevitable.”

Besides the mounting anxiety in African and Western capitals, few conditions have changed since the United Nations ordered ECOWAS to clarify its initial request of force earlier this month. Ouattara begins by announcing the commonly-stated 3,300 troop level set by the bloc's Joint Chiefs of Staff, then partially elaborates that the force will be half Malian. Niger and Nigeria are expected to provide the majority of combat troops, and they in turn expect logistical and air support from Washington, Paris, London and possibly Madrid. Special Forces from the first three countries already operate inside and around Mali, but their numbers are expected to increase as demand for "counselors" rises.

Sticking to the U.S. script that seeks to eliminate "ground troops" from public perception, Ouattara said that he is "not considering the presence of ground troops who are not African."

With Hollande taking command of the UN Security Council on Wednesday, the diplomatic stars have aligned to green-light a pivotal intervention in northern Mali. Ouattara thinks that "we can talk in weeks, not in months," however his interview may produce a leap of inches rather than miles. First and foremost, 3,300 troops (including police and gendarmes) and a sizable contingent of Western military power cannot restore stability by themselves, and will require reinforcements in the near future. Many political considerations also remain unresolved, starting with the interim state of Mali's government; President Dioncounda Traore has finally returned from medical leave to announce a political overhaul, but a "government of national unity" is unlikely to be formed by the two week deadline that "regional mediators have requested." ECOWAS and the UN cannot launch an operation without a national government that is capable of restoring authority.

Even then, northern Malians may reject the legitimacy of any government formed without their input.

Traore also plans to establish a formal committee in a renewed effort to negotiate with "the armed groups in the north of Mali," a wise but complicated course of action. While some observers doubt that National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) will cooperate with African and Western capitals, failing to exhaust all means of negotiations would be equally rash. The group needs no coercion to move against the Islamic matrix that is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine and the Movement For Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and also provides the only oppositional channel to the Tuaregs. Problematically, the MNLA's secessionist agenda is treated on par with international jihad, and foreign powers are unlikely to reach a mutual agreement with the group. That void will force the international community to confront each power individually and collectively, as Ansar Dine and MUJAO have no intention of negotiating their vision of an Islamic state.

African and Western capitals have yet to reach a public consensus on the negotiating front, and the private situation may not be any different.

These factors necessarily undermine the completeness of ECOWAS's military proposal. While some political and military dominoes are being arranged with relative ease, other lie in a disheveled pile and expose large gaps in the overall strategy. Months are still needed to attempt a final sorting of northern Mali's puzzle, otherwise ECOWAS and the UN will increase the risk of entering a political quagmire in a territory that is nearly the size of France.

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