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The pitfalls of French military action in Mali

In the context of the crisis in Mali, the US intends to deploy military drones in neighbouring Niger suggesting that Europe and the US have not learnt from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Another protracted war involving innocent Malians looks likely, unless a viable regional solution can be implemented.

Although witnessed in the full glare of the international community, Mali’s descent into war appeared remarkable even against the backdrop of a volatile sub region. In little over a year, the country has plunged from rebellion, to coup into a full blown conflict in what could evolve into a toxic regional crisis.

The extent of civil discontent concentrated in the long contested Northern regions of the country was palpable following a popular rebellion amongst the Tuareg against an embattled government rapidly losing its grip on political power. In the face of a endemic economic crisis and demands for sweeping political reform to address corruption, cronyism and lack of democratic representation, the executive crumbled after a swift military coup leaving a fragile interim government to head off a mushrooming Northern insurgency.

French military action appeared inevitable after a rebel advance towards the capital Bamako, however the prospects of a French led military operation appeared unfavourable to the Malian government, the UN and notably ECOWAS and the African Union only months earlier, where plans for a regional intervention were placed in motion. The hijacking of the Tuareg rebellion led by the MLNA by radical Islamist groups proved to be the catalyst for French involvement, however claims of Mali’s imminent collapse into a terrorist strong hold capable of launching attacks against the West appear at best fanciful and at worst negligent considering the recent history of the failed war on terror and the implications of a second front on fertile African soil.


Without learning the difficult lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, European nations led by France and in unison with the United States have become entangled in what may become another protracted military intervention with disastrous implications for the long term peace and security for the people of Mali.

A revival of the war of terror comes at a time of growing scepticism around the legitimacy of its aims combined with widespread criticism of the unfolding security crisis in Libya, placing under question the viability of short term military action in the region. Justification of a new counter terrorism front are primarily driven by the consolidation of the US driven AFRICOM where Africa’s militarization has been steadily pursued in tandem with the protection of the region’s vast natural resources as a key strategic priority.

In this context Mali’s war on terror is a clear opportunity to protect entrenched Western market interests in the region, while developing security infrastructure in defence of critical energy reserves. Emphasis has already been placed on US directed intelligence monitoring and surveillance through the use of military drones in neighbouring Niger.

The hijacking of the Tuareg rebellion by Islamic fighters from the Maghreb in the form of the AQIM has fuelled suspicion of external interference in domestic Malian affairs. Rising suspicion over the influx of armed fighters into Mali from Libya following the downfall of Gadaffi, points to startling negligence within Western intelligence circles unable to forecast the threat to West African peace and security.


Behind the headline success of the French military advance the deep social divisions which sparked Mali’s internal crisis remain. Regional disparities in development and democratic representation legitimised calls for change in the North, which has faced decades of marginalisation at the hands of Mali’s clientelist state. Since Malian independence successive rebellions amongst the Tuareg have highlighted the extent of national disunity as the government failed to legitimise its rule outside of Bamako instead depending on a fragile network of regional elites with questionable loyalty to the state.

The military has also been prey to high ethnic tensions contributing to the large scale defection of Tuareg within the armed forces, after accusations of spying on behalf of the MLNA. Growing conflict over the neutrality of security services has contributed to a decline in public faith over fair representation of ethnic groups in national institutions.

The inability to craft genuine provincial democratic institutions through a process of devolution and accountability from below is the underlying root cause behind the current conflict. Without a genuine process to achieve this, efforts to enforce political stability primarily through military action may prove fruitless into the long term.


On the basis of reports from the international media, the French mission in Mali is predicted to be brief and straightforward. Compared to the might of the French military machine the capacity of rebels to successfully launch an offensive are perceived as less than unlikely. Yet military success for the French may be short-lived and without efforts to equip and develop Mali’s national army the long term options for national security remain opaque.

In fact, the West may be haunted by the decision not to provide the Malian government with either arms supplies or military training after the coup d’etat in March last year, instead opting to wait until a complete collapse in military defences as a basis for foreign intervention.

In a familiar pattern amongst anti terrorists operations seen typically in the Middle East, foreign forces remain unprepared for drawn out guerrilla warfare preferred by rebel forces. Unremarkably French military intervention in Mali faces a high risk of a protracted insurgency contributing to a power vacuum in a struggle for national control. If this were to occur ordinary Malians would pay the price for liberation in what could be a lost decade for national development.

Confronted with the prospect of a lengthy occupation by foreign forces largely unaccountable to their government, the impunity of French forces in alliance with their counterparts in the Malian army is likely to trigger a rush of human rights abuses in the Northern territories. Ethnic reprisals have already occurred with allegations of human rights violations made against Malian forces.

Human Rights Watch exposed civilians testimonies from within Tuareg and Arab communities targeted in violent ethnic reprisals by security forces after accusations of support to armed rebels.

The French led military action is constrained not only by a lack of financial resources for a prolonged offensive (in the context of European austerity), but by the absence of a long term exit strategy based on the legitimacy of effective national and regional institutions and bound by the accountability of a UN mandate.


Criticism around ECOWAS and the AU’s slow reaction to the unfolding crisis in Mali comes in the midst of growing unease over the lack of autonomy undertaken by Africa’s institutions in the area of peace and security. Perceived deference toward colonial ties worsened by continuing aid links have fuelled allegations that African leaders have sanctioned Western dominance over regional security instead of taking firm ownership over the delivery of regional solutions.

However Mali is providing a fresh opportunity for ECOWAS and the AU to assert rising African confidence that it can lead the way in forging diplomatic settlements and take charge in the deployment of peacekeeping forces under its authority. The position of countries such as South Africa who have strongly backed African leadership of the military operation in the country in place of Western command have bolstered arguments that the time has come for Africa to stand on its own. Increasing numbers of troops have already been deployed from a number of African countries including from Burkina Faso, Chad and Ghana.

Crucially much work can only be done by regional institutions on post conflict development with their enhanced understanding of the national context and political leverage. Here, ECOWAS can play an instrument role in the provision of support to the Malian government to forge alliances towards an effective peace settlement able to address the deficits in democratic governance which initially triggered the crisis.


The next few months for Mali are essential in determining the trajectory of war and for defining the path towards national reconciliation. Mali’s entanglement in an emerging front in the war on terror poses a direct threat to national stability and development, as the polarized discourse over extremist forces in the hunt for terrorist insurgency overshadows legitimate calls for reform from the moderate centre, pulling the country further away from a swift political settlement.

The strengthening of a social movements embedded in civil society networks with the influence to bring warring factions back towards the negotiating table is paramount, alongside the capacity to demand the accountability of the foreign occupation and national armed forces in serving the interests of the Malian people.

Principally , whether Mali will avoid the cycle of insecurity and decline characterised by countries engulfed in military action under the clock of counter terrorism, will depend largely on the depth of its civic resolve to gradually build the process of national consensus on the foundation of a renewed social democracy. Constructing progressive alliances from within supported by calls for dialogue from across the region may prove critical to the success of efforts to pull Mali back from the brink.

* Joan Nimarko holds an MSc in International Development Studies from the University of London and studied Politics at Leeds.


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1. International Crisis Group ‘Mali: Avoiding Escalation’ – July 2012
2. VOA ‘ ECOWAS ready to intervene in Mali’ 1st August 20102

3. Global Research ‘China and the Congo wars: AFRICOM America’s new military command’
4. US signs deal with Niger to operate military drones in West African state
5. Professor Jeremy Keenan ‘ Mali is not another African War’ New African - Jan 2013
6. International Crisis Group ‘Mali: Avoiding Escalation’ – July 2012
7. Ibid
8. Aljazeera: ‘Mali’s North face a new fear’ 25th Jan 2013
9. BBC News ‘ French success in Mali may herald ‘war of the shadows’

10. Aljazeera: ‘Mali’s North face a new fear’ 25th Jan 2013

11. Africa Review ‘The AU’s love for dithering leaves the West in charge again’ 30th Jan 2013

12. ‘ECOWAS needs to lead Mali interventions’