What to do about Mali? It is a question the international community is starting to ask in earnest, if not yet get to grips with entirely. Few policy makers in Washington or Europe may be able to point out the country on a map, but recent events in thefragile west African state have thrust it high up the international agenda.
First, some background. In March, President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown in an incomplete military coup. That allowed al-Qaeda-allied Islamists and rebels from the Tuareg, a native Berber people, to seize control of northern Mali. Since then, the insurgents have wasted little time implementing an agenda that is worryingly familiar to seasoned al-Qaeda watchers.
Rape, forced marriage and forced prostitution have been widely reported, together with the stoning to death of an unmarried couple and public amputations for thieves. Ancient Sufi shrines have been demolished for supposedly infringing sharia law. About 1.5m Malians have been displaced. The UN warns that war crimes may already have been committed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies.
After recent experiences in Afghanistan and Somalia, the international community is warier than ever of allowing another vulnerable country to descend into a failed-state haven for terrorists. Many fear that instability in Mali will exacerbate the effects of drought and food shortages and precipitate a full-blown humanitarian disaster.
Encouragingly, there appears to be some sense of urgency. On October 12, the UN Security Council passed a resolution paving the way for military intervention by Ecowas, the west African regional grouping. Detailed operational planning must now emerge from African organisations within 45 days. Lest there be any suggestion that the international community is overreacting, it is worth considering the Islamists’ response to proposed intervention. They pledged to “open the doors of hell” for French citizens in Mali and send President François Hollande pictures of dead French hostages.
If intervention is imminent, as seems increasingly likely, what sort of engagement can be expected? One model receiving increasing attention is Somalia, where African Union and Somali security forces have been fighting a vicious campaign against the foreign-led, al-Qaeda-allied al-Shabaab insurgents since 2009. Al-Shabaab has been driven out of Mogadishu, creating the space for politicians to come together to write their own political future. Long considered a basket case, Somalia is now on a trajectory toward economic recovery under a more democratic government.
There are parallels between Mali and Somalia. For al-Shabaab in Somalia, read AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in west Africa and other Islamist organisations that have come to prey on Mali. The nature of the international response in Somalia could also yield lessons for Mali, above all the shared responsibility and partnership between African nations and organisations, the UN and external funders.
It is instructive – and reassuring – that no one envisages sending US or other western forces to Mali. International intervention by proxy has become a more attractive option since the hard-won success in Somalia. This model enables western powers to commit money and materiel rather than manpower to a problem with ramifications that go far beyond Mali’s borders.
For the African Union and Ecowas, foreign financial, logistical and intelligence support enables the application of African solutions to African problems. It is an effective partnership, currently working in practice in Mogadishu, until recently, widely known as the most dangerous city in the world.
There is no question that any intervention in Mali will be hugely challenging. It is extremely doubtful that the 3,000 troops proposed by Ecowas would be sufficient to help recapture the 300,000 square miles of northern Mali seized by the Islamists. Amisom, the AU mission in Somalia, now numbers almost 18,000 by comparison. However many security forces are deployed, it will be imperative to deny al-Qaeda control over airports, military installations, training areas and arms caches soon, before they become harder to expel. A further Security Council resolution is also required to authorise action in Mali.
It is to be hoped that western backing and African manpower will now combine to drive out the toxic al-Qaeda alliance from Mali for good. On October 19, when representatives of the UN, Ecowas, the AU, EU and neighbouring countries meet in the capital of Bamako to discuss next steps, they have the opportunity to demonstrate decisively that they mean business. The world will be watching.
The writer is a senior adviser at Albany Associates, a communications group whose work includes advising the African Union in Somalia