First Published: 2012-12-11

 

How to Bring Peace to Mali and Avoid War

 

Algerias doubts about the wisdom of making war on the Islamists in Mali spring from its own bitter experience of civil war in the 1990s, which is said to have claimed up to 200,000 lives, argues Patrick Seale.

 

Middle East Online

French President Franois Hollandes visit to Algeria, scheduled for 19-20 December, is unlikely to be an easy mission. High on his agenda will be the situation in Mali, where armed Islamist groups seized control of the north of the country after a military coup last March in the capital Bamako. France has been pressing for an international force to oust the Islamists, but Algeria, the major regional power which borders on Mali to its south, is firmly against any such intervention. While it defends the principle of the integrity of Mali, it believes the crisis is an internal problem which should be settled by negotiation, not by force.

The dispute between France and Algeria is likely to be sharpened by the news last Monday that Cheick Modibo Diarra, Malis prime minister -- a passionate advocate of international intervention against the Islamists -- was arrested as he was about to board a plane for Paris. The order for his arrest came from Captain Amadou Sanogo, leader of the coup last March, who is fervently opposed to foreign military intervention.

Northern Mali -- an arid area the size of France -- is the home of nomadic Touareg tribes who for decades have struggled to win autonomy, if not full independence, from Bamako. The military coup last March gave them their chance. But they had barely seized the main northern towns from a demoralised Malian army when they in turn were defeated and ousted by armed Islamists, who set about imposing on the local population a harsh version of Sharia law. Their exactions -- stoning for infidelity, amputations for theft, as well as the destruction of ancient World Heritage shrines have aroused much anxiety in world capitals.

The fear is that these extremist Islamist movements -- AQMI (al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamic), MUJAO (Movement pour lunicit et le jihad en Afrique de lOuest) and Ansar al-Din -- could turn the vast area of northern Mali into a regional base for international terrorism and trafficking in narcotics, threatening the security of neighbouring states, and posing a danger to Malis neighbours, to Europe and even to the United States. Some evoke the spectre of another Afghanistan.

On 12 October, France persuaded the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution in favour of an intervention to oust the Islamists. A month later, West African leaders at an emergency summit in Abuja discussed the military means and strategy which such an intervention would require. ECOWAS, the 15-nation West African organisation, was reported to be ready to contribute a force of 3,300 men. France and other European states were said to be preparing to train several Malian battalions which, with intelligence from the United States, logistics from France and stiffening by ECOWAS forces, would recapture Timbuktu and Goa from the Islamists and then stabilise the area to prevent the Islamists return. Military operations were expected to begin in January 2013 before the heavy spring rains of March-April. War seemed imminent.

The last few weeks, however, have seen a change of mood. The task has come to seem daunting. The sheer size of Northern Malis desert terrain; the weakness of local West African armies not trained for combat abroad and often preoccupied with security problems at home (such as the Boko Haram rebellion in Nigeria); the impressive military arsenal of the Islamists, much of it seized from Libya after Muammar al-Qadhafis overthrow; the months it would take to bring the Malian army up to scratch; the widespread and widely-shared fear of being sucked into an interminable conflict, all these have tamed the ardour of those who pressed for military action.

A real damper has come from Algeria -- the only country in the region with a powerful army and a capable intelligence service. The Algerian Minister of Interior and the Algerian army chief of staff have both come out firmly against intervention. Algerias Foreign Minister, Mourad Medelci, has been canvassing support for a political solution to the crisis, winning the backing of Turkeys Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu; of Mauritanias head of state, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz; and of the former Italian premier Roman Prodi, now the UN special envoy to the Sahel (My mission, Prodi declared, is to do everything possible for peace and to avoid war.)

In an article on November 23, the Algerian daily, Al Watan, mocked France for pressing for military intervention in northern Mali, saying that it was behaving like a bull in a china shop.

Algerias doubts about the wisdom of making war on the Islamists in Mali spring from its own bitter experience of civil war in the 1990s, which is said to have claimed up to 200,000 lives. Abdelmalek Droukdel, the present head of AQMI, is none other than a former Islamist who fought the Algerian army for several years. Anxious to avoid any possibility of a renewed Islamist uprising in its exposed southern region, Algerias policy is to press for negotiations with all those in northern Mali who reject terrorism and international drug trafficking.

The assassination of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi last September has focussed American attention on the Islamist threat to North Africa and the Sahel. American drones are no doubt already monitoring the area. Yet some of the most sensible remarks about the situation in Mali have come from General Carter Ham, head of AFRICOM, the command HQ of American forces in Africa. In an interview with Le Monde on 17 November, he declared that a purely military approach to the situation in northern Mali was doomed to fail. It was necessary, he said, to place the possibility of military action within a wider strategy. The first requirement was a political negotiation together with humanitarian assistance. The borders of Malis neighbours, such as Algeria, had to be made secure. The world should prepare for military intervention but it was by no means inevitable.

Instead, he proposed that the Bamako government respond to the political aspirations of the Touareg and of other groups in northern Mali. If the population in the north came to believe that the government would give due attention to its demands, it might then act in such a way as to make AQMI leave the region -- perhaps even without resorting to force, he declared.

The Sahel has been neglected by the international community for far too long. It is a poor part of the world made poorer by drought, violence, and the corruption of local elites. Rather than military intervention, Mali needs political reconciliation underpinned and promoted by massive development aid, sustained over several years. This may be the only way to persuade young men, desperate for a better life, to leave the Islamist groups and give up hostage-taking and drug smuggling which have so far have been their only way to make a living.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).

Copyright 2012 Patrick Seale distributed by Agence Global

 

Russia mulls supplying S-300 missile systems to Syria

Bashir fires Sudan foreign minister

Washington: Assad still has 'limited' chemical capability

US has 'concerns' about Turkey holding fair vote under state of emergency

Saudi women embrace sports headscarves

Turkey in shock after violent Istanbul derby

Iraq pays first war reparations to Kuwait since 2014

Fiery kites adopted as new tactic by Gaza protesters

Romanian president slams plan to move Israel embassy

Western strikes on Syria bring no change whatsoever

Trump criticises OPEC for high oil prices

Syria says rebels south of capital surrender

Market has capacity to absorb higher oil prices: Saudi minister

Putin 'ready' for Trump summit

Saudi Arabia to host first public film screening

HRW criticises Lebanon for evicting Syria refugees

Saudi says intercepted ballistic missile from Yemen

European MPs urge US not to scrap Iran deal

Oil price soars to highest level in years

Two more pro-Kurdish MPs stripped of Turkey seats

Oil theft 'costing Libya over $750 million annually'

Turkey's snap polls: bold gambit or checkmate for Erdogan?

Iran arrests senior official over public concert

Bahrain sentences 24 to jail, strips citizenship

UN experts urge Iran to cancel Kurd's death sentence

Moderate quake strikes near Iran nuclear power plant

Syria regime forces caught in surprise IS attack

Turkey sentences 18 to life for killing ‘hero’ coup soldier

Exxon faces setback in Iraq as oil and water mix

Libya to clamp down on fuel smuggling

Yemen to arrest colonel for overlooking African migrant rape

Erdogan sends Turkey to snap polls on June 24

Qatar joins Gulf military exercise in apparent compromise

Saudi-Russia oil alliance likely to undercut OPEC

UN in security talks with Syria on chemical probe

Riyadh says two al Qaeda militants killed in Yemen

Record of women candidates in Lebanon, but you can't tell from TV

Sudan protests to UN over Egypt voting in disputed area

Erdogan calls Turkey snap polls for June 24

Rights watchdog say African migrants face rape, torture in Yemen

Nine years since last vote, Lebanon in election fever

Israeli fire neat Gaza border injures five Palestinian

Egypt army says killed jihadist leader in Sinai

Iraq sentences over 300 people to death for IS links

Syria chemical weapons visit delayed after gunfire