Ben Levitas
Ben Levitas

Have jihadists crossed the Rubicon in Mali?

A maxim of President Francois Hollande’s election campaign was to reduce France’s overseas interventionist activities. Since the 1960s France has intervened militarily on nearly 50 occasions, mainly to evacuate foreigners as it did in 1990 and 1991 in Gabon and Zaire and in 1994 in Rwanda. Until 2011 France continued to act as the ”policeman” of Africa and in March 2011 its air force was the first to bomb Muammar Gaddafi’s forces after the United Nations authorised intervention in Libya to protect civilians caught up in the rebellion. On March 31 2011 Nato took command of the overall mission that helped the Libyan rebels defeat Gaddafi and take power.

Ironically France’s involvement in Libya set in motion the smuggling of arms and jihadist fighters across its borders into neighbouring Mali, which was poorly governed and a soft target. Under the banner of several jihadist groups they very rapidly took over most of northern Mali, an area the size of France. Mali’s apparent inability to respond and protect its sovereignty caused mutinous soldiers to overthrow Mali’s democratically elected president in March 2012. Into this power vacuum the Islamic fundamentalists imposed harsh sharia law, strict covering of women, banning music and whipping, amputating and stoning to death people convicted by makeshift courts of crimes. The militants have destroyed ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims. In addition trafficking of people, slaves and weapons is rampant.

The political response was tardy, which simply played into the hands of the ever advancing jihadists. On November 14 2012, the African Union requested the United Nations Security Council to endorse a military intervention to free northern Mali from Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda. Only on December 20 2012 did the UN authorise by Resolution 2085 a regional African force for Mali. This plan, agreed to by the West African bloc known as Economic Community of West African States (a 15-nation bloc that wields considerable influence in the region) would only be able to be implemented earliest in September this year.

The French minister of foreign affairs, Laurent Fabius, announced on January 16 that following a request from Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traoré on January 9 and “the capture of Konna on January 10 convinced us that we were indeed dealing with blatant aggression” and “that France should intervene militarily”.

He stated that: ”France is pursuing clear objectives: halting the terrorist advance, preserving the Malian state and helping it regain its territorial integrity, promoting the implementation of international resolutions with the deployment of the African force, and providing support for Malian forces in their effort to recapture northern Mali.”

The positive response to the French move by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Security Council and all the African nations in West Africa, illustrates the seriousness the threat to African peace and security was perceived to be. There is growing awareness of an ”arc” of jihadist groups all along the Sahel and a concern that Malian jihadists would coordinate with other Islamist militants such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s al Shabab. There is a widespread fear that Mali could become another Somalia or Afghanistan — a failed state with no effective government allowing extremists a huge area to train in and launch attacks across the Sahel. The imposition of hard-line sharia law accompanied by human-rights abuses could also have resulted in mass migrations of people that could overwhelm neighbouring countries.

Without the support of Algeria the military intervention would have been impossible. Algeria shares a border with northern Mali and many of the Islamist rebels in the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb group originate from Algeria. Despite huge internal opposition, Algeria has supported the French military intervention by granting France and other states flyover rights and closed her border with Mali. Egypt on the other hand has warned that military intervention in Mali would aggravate strife in Africa and risk alienating the rest of the continent from its Arab north.

“The intervention must be peaceful” Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, told an Arab development conference in Saudi Arabia.

Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, took a more subtle position, firstly expressing his opposition, in principle, against any military intervention in Mali by anyone other than African forces, and then he qualified his views saying the intervention was ”exceptional and justified” after meeting with French ambassador Francois Gouyette. Tunisian presidential spokesperson Adnan Manser differed saying Tunisia did not at all support the French intervention in Mali or any foreign military intervention in that country. He said the conflict could threaten neighbouring countries, including Tunisia. Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, questioned the merits of the French intervention saying the use of force would not solve the problem and called for dialogue.

As France is aware that the intervention can continue only as long as the plan is approved by the United Nations it is planning for a short campaign. France is focusing on helping Malian armed forces by targeting terrorist support bases in order to neutralise their offensive capabilities. In this way they aim to reduce the pressure from terrorist groups through a combined air-and-ground action led by special forces.

France is fully aware that it cannot act alone and that it needs the support particularly of African nations to assist with logistics, transport and air-to-air refuelling. France intends appealing for international donors to help finance the African mission at a conference on January 29. The European Union also plans to host a meeting on Mali on February 5, with the support of the United Nations and African Union. The UK, US, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and other nations should be joining shortly. Paris aims to hand over the military operation to the UN-mandated African-led International Support Mission to Mali “as quickly as possible”.

Military experts say the swift and effective deployment of African forces is crucial to sustain the momentum of France’s air campaign and prevent Islamists from melting away into the empty desert or the rugged mountains near the Algerian border.

It is significant that while West African countries are rallying to this cause by contributing about 3 400 troops from Senegal, Benin, Togo, Niger and Burkina Faso and a force of nearly 1 000 Nigerians, South Africa is still sitting on the sidelines. Chad with forces familiar with fighting in similar desert conditions has confirmed that it will send 2 000 troops.

But military strategists believe victory could take months or even years. Even estimates of the numbers of jihadists range from 1 200 to more than 3 000 fighters who are familiar with the desert terrain. It is feared that the employment of tactics such as hiding among the local population, of kidnapping and using them as human shields could drag out the war for longer.

Does this step by France indicate that despite the dangers and risks of intervention it has realised that jihadism represents a real threat to stability? Did France determine that failure to act immediately in Mali, before the militants became too embedded over too large an area, would not allow them to be dislodged later without an even more major conflict? Does it indicate that African and western nations may need to find common cause in acknowledging that there has been a resurgence of Islamic extremism following the Arab Spring. That this extremism is antithetical to the moderate version of Islam that pervades the African continent? Are we witnessing the crossing of the Rubicon in the thinking of how Africa intends to respond to future insurgencies by jihadists? I believe the Rubicon has been crossed!

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