When France’s President François Hollande flew to Timbuktu and Bamako on February 2 to supervise the ongoing Serval military operation, the crowds welcomed him as their savior, chanting his name and waving the French flags that had been widely distributed (some had even painted themselves blue, white, and red). The scene was reminiscent of Benghazi in September 2011 when Libyans cheered the arrival of then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister David Cameron with signs that read, “Vive la France.” (Of course, Benghazi and Libya have now plunged into a security-political turmoil, and no one knows where it will lead.)
At the start of the engagement, French authorities were quick to announce that their troops would withdraw gradually from Mali in early March. However, unsurprisingly, the French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian has since revised France’s position, indicating that the military mission will take longer than expected. Now, it has been decided that French troops will remain in Mali alongside the deployment of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), due to start on July 1. And a number of issues and security problems related to Mali and the Sahel region still remain.
- Conventional military operations cannot defeat terrorism and guerrilla warfare, and, on the contrary, may exacerbate the threat by providing more impetus to the terrorists who can in turn rally more support from the local populations. Indeed, civilian casualties often trigger anger among the populations who see no good in a foreign military intervention, as is the case in Iraq or Afghanistan.
- Mali’s allies and partners such as France have for a long time turned a blind eye to the internal problems of the country, and the economic aid pledged last week should only be part of a larger assistance plan involving political advice and training.
- Mali is the weakest link in a highly vulnerable Sahel region, which means that any lasting and concrete solution must have a regional and holistic approach.
- Military interventions can only be seen as a small part of a global political solution in Mali and the Sahel region in general. Mali and the Tuareg population suffer from decades-long socio-political and economic inefficiency, corruption, and a lack of willingness from Bamako to adequately respond to the legitimate demands of the Tuareg living in the north.
The French military intervention may have helped to win back the cities of Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu, and the north of Mali, but, despite killing a large number of terrorists, most members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have fled Mali and are now hiding in the grey zones of the vast Sahel region stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea. There are even growing indications that many have found safe haven in southern Libya as well as elsewhere in the contiguous southern areas.
Furthermore, the deaths of AQIM’s leader Abou Zeid and other terrorists, along with the presumed killing of Mokhtar Belmokhtar—the mastermind behind the dramatic attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria in January—will not change the regional landscape instability. Indeed, AQIM’s tentacle body remains well alive, and terrorists who are fighting a typical asymmetrical guerrilla war will continue to hit-and-run either in Mali or in neighboring countries, just as they did in In Amenas. In fact, the recent coup attempt in N’Djamena could well be a response to Chad’s military involvement in Mali.
It is now three months since Hollande’s visit and his call for a dialogue to resolve the Malian crisis, and there remains legitimate doubts about Bamako’s willingness to find a genuine and durable socio-political solution to this ongoing deep-rooted crisis and engage into an open and sincere dialogue, even with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Further complicating this equation is that many believe that even if a political dialogue began, it could be a biased political disequilibrium favoring Bamako due to the French military involvement and influence.
Furthermore, it has been reported numerous times by human rights NGOs that the Malian army is taking revenge against the population in the north, especially against the Maures, Tuareg and Songhai. Similarly, the angry Malian population in the south perceives the Tuareg as those responsible for the current crisis in Mali, as well as behind the presence of the terrorists in the country. This can only widen the already dangerous divide between the north and south populations, and it is a serious issue the authorities must deal with quickly to prevent civilian chaos which would greatly undermine any possibility for stability and the unity of Mali.