The diplomatic pieces may be falling into place for a West African lead military intervention in Northern Mali. This story is not getting much attention in the western press, but all signs are pointing to a potential US and French backed intervention against the patchwork of militias that have asserted themselves in northern Mali.

Some background

When the regime of Muammar Gaddafi fell in Spring 2011, the complex web of tribal and ethnic militias he supported suddenly lost a patron. Ethnic Tuareg militias sought to revisit longstanding aspirations to carve out a homeland in the rugged terrain of Northern Mali. They teamed up with some al Qaeda inspired militant groups, and easily routed the Malian army. In the midst of the fighting in the north, a group of junior officers mounted a coup against the government in Bamako. Mali, an erstwhile bastion of democracy and stability in the region, was suddenly thrown into political chaos.

Meanwhile, in the north of the country, the Islamist militias turned on their Tuareg allies and are now firmly in control of key cities like Timbuktu. In scenes reminiscnet of the Taliban, these groups are desecrating ancient artifacts and imposing medieval forms of punishment on the local population for whom salafism is anathema.

The conflict has exacerbated an already dire food and humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region of western Africa. Over 250,000 Malians have fled to neighbouring countries. Some 174,000 Malians are estimated to be internally displaced. UN humanitarian agencies are struggling to keep up with the demand.

Momentum for Intervention

Earlier this summer, coup leaders in Bamako turned over power to a transitional government. Last week, after much wrangling, the Malian government formally requested military assistance from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has been eager to intervene to try and stop the spread of these Islamist groups.

The plan calls for the deployment of 3,300 international troops, which would bolster a very broken Malian army. That alone will probably not be sufficient to dislodge militias, so they are looking to western countries for assistance. During his speech to the UN General Assembly, French president Francois Hollande strongly signaled that France would be prepared to support this intervention.

You did not hear much from the Americans about this at the UN last week, but over the past few days there has been a steady trickle of news suggesting that the USA is prepared to somehow back this endeavor. Just yesterday, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson urged the government in Bamako to finalize details of their agreement with ECOWAS. Meanwhile, the American general in charge of the US Africa Command visited the region this week, though he downplayed direct American military intervention. Injected into this mix are steady media reports about potential American strikes against al Qaeda targets in the Sahel.

Two weeks ago, I asked the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer whether the US government would support the intervention. She indicated to me that the US was not opposed in principal, but some important details about the force’s structure and mandate would need to be resolved before the USA would support the cause at the Security Council.

It seems that the Security Council is now more closely poised to endorsing an ECOWAS led intervention in Mali. This does not mean that the ECOWAS troops will start battling Islamist miltias in Timbuktu right away, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the pieces are starting to fall into place for some sort of international intervention in northern Mali. What we don’t know yet is the extent of French or American support for this intervention?

I’m guessing this question will not arise in any of the presidential debates here in the USA this month, but the facts seem to suggest that the next big international intervention will be in Mali. And soon.

Discussion

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