In near term, containment may be the name of the game in Mali

If you’re following the news on Mali, you’ve no doubt seen the most recent developments in the political crisis in Bamako in which the military junta “encouraged” or “facilitated” the resignation of PM Cheikh Modibo Diarra on Tuesday. (For thorough roundup of analyses and reactions to this incident, I would refer you here).

Two months ago, I wrote a post called “UN inches closer to approving ECOWAS intervention in Mali” and I thought I’d add some additional insights to it in light of recent developments.

In recent months, there have been no fewer than a gajillion (to use an analytical term) reports of ECOWAS drafting a plan for intervention and the UNSC telling them they’re on the right track, but not quite there. Amidst reports that a military intervention is inevitable, some differences have come to light vis-à-vis how the international community should approach said intervention.

  • France favors swift approval by the UNSC of ECOWAS’ most recent intervention plan – a process complicated by the fact that Captain Sanogo has consistently been opposed to foreign intervention, and has successfully removed one of the key figures calling for such an intervention - PM Diarra.
  • The United States has been more cautious in its support, favoring a dual-phase intervention that commences in the south with the training of the Mali Armed Forces (MAF) that would ideally complement (an actual, rather than cosmetic) political transition in Bamako. The second phase would then involve a mandate for military intervention to reconquer the north.

The way I see it, the United States’ reticence to throw unconditional support behind an ECOWAS-led intervention is primarily influenced by two factors.

  • The first is the legacy of the arguably haphazard intervention in Libya that did not consider the broader regional implications of military intervention. I sense little appetite on the part of the United States to be held responsible for endorsing an ECOWAS intervention if it goes north and exacerbates the situation, or fails outright.
  • To understand the second factor, you really need to take a closer look at the lessons of the African Union intervention in Somalia. In particular, the United States touts the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) as a potential model for an ECOWAS-led intervention in Mali. Notably, AMISOM came into being because of a regional and international demand signal for such an intervention force in Somalia. However, it was continually plagued with trying to determine how to achieve its objectives when troop contributions and funding were either unpredictable or altogether not forthcoming. As a result, it was only four and a half years into its mandate and over $385 million USD later that it started to see success. I think that although the U.S. sees AMISOM as a model for African-led conflict resolution supported by the international community, it simply lacks the time or the money to make the same mistake – in spite of a similar demand signal for intervention in Mali. Hence the requirement for extensive planning for concept of operations, troop commitments, and a resourcing plan prior to a mandate for intervention.

I think there’s a general consensus that Mali is a festering sore in the Sahel and that someone needs to do something about it, but the means and modalities are still TBD. In the mean time, I don’t foresee U.S. boots on the ground – at least the kind of boots you or I would even be aware of (wink, wink). But I would not be surprised if the U.S. approach to northern Mali is containment. Like in Somalia and the broader Horn of Africa, I see this as an approach in which the U.S. focuses on ensuring that the activities of AQIM, Ansar Dine, and MUJAO are confined to northern Mali and do not spread to Algeria, Niger, or Mauritania. I could also see this approach utilizing kinetic means (i.e., drone strikes) to disrupt terrorist operations in northern Mali, as well as non-kinetic means (i.e., public diplomacy programs) focused on countering violent extremism in Niger and Mauritania.

Until the political situation in Bamako becomes less unstable, the U.S. and European allies can agree on an approach to intervention, and ECOWAS can get boots on the ground (perhaps not until late 2013), I think containment is going to be the name of the game in northern Mali.

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