Mali: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Mali: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Conor Godfrey

For how long? Photo by New York Times
This is my last blog before turning the reins back over to Jim, so I thought I would sign out with the state of play in Mali, a country near and dear to my heart.

4,000 French troops, along with several hundred Chadians, and smaller contingents from Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Senegal, have retaken the three main Northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, and pushed the main body of insurgents northward into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains on the border with Algeria.

Estimates put total insurgent numbers, spread among three or four different groups, around 4,000 – 6,000, and French forces report the rebels are well armed and better trained than expected.

The Good:
– The hardcore Islamist leadership is dropping like horses in the Tse-Tse belt. A mess of confirmed and unconfirmed reports claim that French and/or Chadian forces killed two leading figures in the assorted extremist groups currently fighting in Northern Mali.
– These leaders— Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid—are committed international Jihadis from outside Mali, with long histories of murder and kidnapping. (Disclaimer: Belmoktar’s death remains unconfirmed)

As much as some readers may hate force, or the idea of the French using it in West Africa, I would argue that brute force helps separate the committed jihadis from opportunistic locals.

Joining a rebel movement seems like a much better play when they run your hometown, claim to fight your traditional enemies, or pay the best of any employer in town.

That line of work looks far less attractive when your foreign (likely Algerian or Mauritanian) boss is running for his life through the dessert.

The Bad:
– So far, diverse Northern communities are broadly receptive of the French intervention.

However, this is horrendously complicated and could turn at any moment. A few things you should keep in mind regarding about popular opinion in Mali:

Anti-northern attitudes are hardening in Southern Mali—especially negative feelings toward Tuaregs.

This xenophobia will complicate the post-conflict scenario, as Southern elites will come under serious pressure to punish the North. In the North, communal divisions make coalescing behind moderate representation nigh impossible.

See this great post by Bamako Bruce exploring the historical roots of inter-communal antipathy….

Essentially, the Tuaregs have been slavers for most of the territory’s history, so the former slaves find it rather difficult to see Tuaregs as victims.

The Ugly:
– There is no centrifugal force currently capable of creating a unified, functional Mali. Watch this two-minute Stratfor video on Mali’s geographic challenge.

Nothing has changed.

A military occupation by a superior force can enforce a temporary peace, but not make a state. The French are facing intense domestic pressure to make good on Hollande’s claim that this would be a short term operation, and every French soldier that dies (three so far) makes Mali look more like Iraq to the folks back home.

– Sure. But really just for optimism’s sake.

Mali needs representative, viable, and politically palatable representation in the North that can lead a constituent assembly, or at least claim to speak for Northern communities in negotiations with the South.

An armed peace held together by regional forces and or the (proposed) UN Peacekeeping mission might give Northern elites time to bargain over such a coalition.

However, I don’t think any of the current groups would be acceptable to the entire Northern population – the MNLA are too Tuareg centric, and the others are mostly too extreme.

The international community – especially the French – should immediately begin using whatever leverage they have to kick-start the bargaining process before the extremists come get back from the mountains.