The interim president of Mali has formally requested military support from the regional power bloc, ECOWAS, to assist with operations in the occupied northern part of the country. For several months, ECOWAS had promised to make a stand-by force of 3,000 soldiers available to the Malian government, however, interim president Traore’s request specifically rules out the deployment of ECOWAS troops on the ground. Instead, ECOWAS has been asked to provide support in the form of logistics, training, equipment and aerial support. Meanwhile, the ECOWAS intervention has yet to be sanctioned by a UN resolution. The last Security Council resolution on Mali, in early July, supports the “coordinated efforts” of Mali, ECOWAS and the African Union, but stopped short of endorsing military action. The resolution reads that the Security Council wishes to “further examine the request of the two regional organizations for a United Nations mandate authorizing the deployment of an ECOWAS stabilization force in Mali.”

Following the official request to ECOWAS, France announced that they are organizing a conference on the Sahel in New York on September 26th, during the UN General Assembly. Sixty heads of state have been invited to the high-level conference, and French president Francois Hollande has already agreed to participate. For all these diplomatic efforts, the French special representative for Sahel affairs said that France does not see itself “play a frontline role”, but wishes to support and “facilitate” the process. In fact, it was that same representative – Jean Felix-Paganon – who announced that Mali would be requesting military help from ECOWAS, before the Malian interim president formally submitted the request.

In the French media, concerns are being raised with regards to the influence of the military junta on the interim president’s decision to only request narrow military support. Indeed, junta leaders in Mali have made it clear that they do not want to see any foreign troops on the ground. Gilles Yabi, of the International Crisis Group, notes that the leadership in Mali has “two heads” – on the one hand, civilian power and representation in interim president Dioncounda Traore, and, on the other, junta leader Captain Sanogo. According to Yabi, an ECOWAS troop deployment would weaken the influence of the junta, which explains why Sanogo has been so intransigent regarding the potential presence of troops.

Beyond Mali’s stated desire to have Malians fight their own battles, we must also recognize the inherent tensions that exist in calling in foreign troops – even when mandated by the UN – to get rid of foreign fighters and influence. Indeed, previous ECOWAS deployments in the region have not always been successful. The involvement of several ECOWAS missions in the Liberian civil war, for example, did not yield the intended results. Through lack of organization, resources and leadership, troops on the ground never had the ability to effectively protect Liberian lives and property. In many cases, the presence of ECOWAS troops added fuel to the fire, and ECOWAS soldiers themselves were involved in incidents of violence. Notwithstanding the obvious need for support in dealing with the rebellions in the north, the memory of these operations must not be far at hand for Malian leaders, as they consider the possibility of having thousands of foreign troops enter their country.

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