Is Mali set to be the next Afghanistan?

By Peter Douglas

With Mrs Clinton holdings talks with Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika to secure Algeria’s backing for military force against militants in northern Mali the possibility of a serious international intervention in the region is increasing.

Reports of new Jihadist fighters flooding into Northern Mali from Algeria, Sudan, and the Western Sahara the destabilisation of the Sahel is becoming an increasingly urgent issue.  Since April,  al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algerian originating fundamentalist group, and Tuareg allies Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have taken over Northern Mali, partitioning the region and imposing Islamist Sharia law.  Shock waves are rippling through the international community as this rebel movement steadily gains momentum with insurgents flowing into the region from Libya and Sudan. Wikimedia provides an informative map showing the areas of Mali currently occupied, alongside key towns and cities under rebel control.

Malian government ineffective

Mali it appears is incapable of a legitimate response. Recovering from a recent military coup in March, the central government are far from achieving any level unity or political capacity sufficient to produce decisive action against the increasingly established rebel groups. Political chaos defines the Malian capital Bamako and neither the highly unpopular interim president Dioncounda Traoré, nor Cheick modibo Diarra, the prime minister – who left his job as a astrophysicist  at NASA to take on the role – have managed to produce a unified response to the crisis. With Mali politically and militarily unable to deal with this increasingly diverse rebel force now running the northern region, calls have been made for a transnational response. The UN Security Council has called on West African nations to ready a military force against AQIM, and on October 12th approved a resolution urging West African states to prepare a force of up to 3,000 troops that would attempt to recapture northern Mali. Both France and the United Nations insist any invasion of Mali’s north must be led by African troops.

Whilst Algeria, with its powerful army, was at first opposed to any military intervention in Mali, a stance which the US has been successfully attempting to budge.

Fears of a ‘new Afghanistan’

Western states are right to be concerned. Many fear that northern Mali could become the new Afghanistan. The vast arid expanse beyond Timbuktu provides the perfect no-man’s-land where extremists can freely train, traffic arms and plot terror attacks abroad. The partitioned area has essentially become a pseudo state for Islamic fundamentalists. However, it is not necessarily the US who are most fearful of a lawless Mali. France, the former colonial ruler of countries across the Sahel is seen as a prime target. With French hostages being held in the country, and fears of French Islamic militants receiving training in the region, the European state whose president recently promised “a new chapter” in engagement on the continent may well have a controversially significant role in any military operations in Mali.

Moral validation

Alongside diplomatic dialogue, horror stories from this insurgent controlled region stories are coming thick and fast, laying a terrifying and bloody ethical justification for future military intervention. In the northern regions beyond government control, a harsh version of sharia law operates, where robbers and drunks have had hands, feet and even heads cut off. Equally dreadful accounts of Islamists buying child soldiers from their families and compiling a list of exploitable unmarried women who are pregnant or had borne children set emotive moral grounds to accompany Western security concerns.

Future Western Intervention

On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany would be prepared to take part in a European mission to train and provide logistical support for Malian security forces. European Union members are considering a noncombat training mission to help the interim Malian government. This accompanies reports of France putting surveillance drones in the region.

The all to predictable, but by no means unjustified criticism of post-colonial intent has been posited, Algerian Tuareg chief, MP Mahmud Guemama, arguing in the Algerian newspaper, Elkhabar that: “What the United States and France are asking will cause a lot of problems,” warning that such action had “colonial objectives.”

The official line is that a planned military push to reclaim northern Mali from armed rebel groups is unlikely to begin before next year. However, with rebel groups gaining strength, and the emergence of an Islamic fundamentalist, Al-Qaeda controlled pseudo-state drawing ever closer, it would be unwise to take this stance too seriously.

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