Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mali -- the next Afghanistan

The Security Council has moved a step closer to authorising military force in Mali -- the precedents are not good, writes Graham Usher at the UN

On 12 October the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution granting West African nations 45 days to come up with a plan to free Northern Mali from the grip of Islamist rebels, including Al-Qaeda's regional franchise: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The resolution reflects a growing worry that northern Mali has become an ungoverned space which, left alone, could pose the same kind of threat to Western Europe as the "ungoverned" Afghanistan posed to the United States in 2001.

The resolution also reveals Western frustration with African efforts to deal with the crisis. Mali and the West Africa regional body ECOWAS both requested Security Council authorisation for an African-led force to retake the North. But for several months council members have sought in vain a detailed plan of operations, which Mali and ECOWAS have struggled to agree between themselves. The result has been tension between the Mali government and ECOWAS in the south, and the "entrenchment" of hardline Islamists in the north.

France drafted the resolution. This is not surprising, says a seasoned French observer.

"The two most serious [foreign policy] crises for us are Syria and Mali [but] Mali is top of the list. In Mali we have an Afghanistan, a Somalia being created in the North. And the target is not the US: it is France."

Mali split into its southern and northern halves in March when rebel soldiers ousted the president in a coup. Tuareg nationalist rebels seized the confusion to overrun the northern two thirds of the country, long regarded as a Tuareg homeland.

Islamist extremists backed the revolt only to then hijack it, vanquishing the Tuaregs mostly to neighbouring countries.

The Islamists include the local Ansar Dine movement as well as others, but reports say AQIM is the dominant force and the common thread that loosely binds the different rebel groups. Borne from the Algerian Salafis, the AQIM is a self consciously Arab movement more than an African one, unlike the Tuareg rebels.

The UN resolution is an attempt to stem this Islamist tide.

It calls on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to provide military advisors to ECOWAS and the African Union to help them draw up a detailed plan of operations. This is to be presented to the Security Council within 45 days with detailed "actionable" recommendations. If the strategy is deemed achievable, the Security Council will pass another resolution authorising force to regain the north, with the European Union likely to provide capacity building and training to the Malian army so that it can "re-establish" its authority over all of Mali's territory.

It is the most comprehensive UN plan yet for Mali. But analysts and diplomats have no illusion about the challenges. Mali is not one crisis but several, all with deep, overlapping, yet different roots. And whatever UN-African force is raised will have to deal with them all.

First, there is a crisis of legitimacy. For most Malians the transitional government cobbled together in the wake of the coup in Bamako is barely more representative than the AQIM. It carries no popular mandate. Tuareg rebels seized the north precisely because there was no longer a legitimate government in the south. The coup-makers have a poor human rights record, with reports of torture, disappearances and dire prison conditions. And they have already had to fend off one countercoup attempt by loyalist soldiers.

This democratic deficit has persuaded council members like the US that there should be elections in Mail before any attempt is made to take on the Islamists. Others, like France, say with AQIM so dominant, democracy is neither feasible nor a priority. But the government's lack of democratic legitimacy will haunt it -- especially if it enters the north on the back of an ECOWAS or African Union invasion.

This is certainly so for the Tuareg people. They see their current marginalisation in the north as a historical continuity that stretches back to the early days of French colonial rule but includes the pre-coup democratic Malian governments. If there are internationally supervised elections, the question of the Tuareg's integration into Mali and their national rights in the north may be more fairly addressed. If they aren't, the Tuareg question will be as much a bane in the new Mali as it was in the old.

Still, the bane for most Malians is the AQIM enclave in the north. Ivan Simonovic, the UN's assistant secretary-general for Human Rights, on 9 October gave a graphic account of life under the Islamists. While abuses occurred under the Tuareg rebels, now they have become systemic.

"Civil and political rights are being severely restricted as a result of the imposition of Sharia law, and systematic, cruel and inhuman punishments are being implemented, including executions, mutilations and stoning," said Simonovic after returning from a trip to the Mali.

He highlighted the particular oppression faced by women. Forced marriages are reportedly common, with women being sold to one husband and then forced to remarry: a practice akin to rape and commercial sexual exploitation. In the north "women were not only for sale but 'on sale', and can be bought for less than a $1,000," he said.

Children are also abused: the closure of schools in the north, the flight of teachers, lack of jobs and extreme poverty all "make it easy for children to fall prey to armed extremist groups". In particular, Islamist rebels awash in cash gleaned from ransoms and drug transshipments are paying $600 upfront to impoverished parents for child soldiers, followed by monthly payments of $400.

The increasingly entrenched rule of the AQIM in the north is perhaps the hardest challenge facing any future Mali-ECOWAS military force. Nor are the precedents good. Somalia, despite some successes against the Islamists, remains an unfinished war. Syria shows the price of doing nothing, Afghanistan, the price of intervention. Perhaps for Mali the question is not which option is better but which is worse?

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