The French-led intervention in the west African nation of Mali has captured the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. As the Islamist rebels flee to mountains in the north, the French are contemplating what comes next, amid concerns of a prolonged guerrilla war and war crimes committed by their Mali army allies.
As with other recent examples of Western interventions, the capture of the major urban centres could prove the easiest part of the French-led intervention into the resource-rich region.
Human Rights Watch reported “credible accounts” of human rights abuses, including summary executions and arbitrary arrests in the towns of Sevare, Nioro, and Mopti the Huffington Post said on January 23.
The Mali Army has targetted members of the Touareg ethnic group, who have waged a long-struggle for an independent state, Azawad, in Mali's north.
Despite media reports conflating the Touareg struggle for national liberation with the Islamists, the two are separate. The Islamists won control of towns in Mali's north away from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
Having won control of most of northern Mali, the MNLA declared an independent state in Mali's north in April last year, before losing control to Islamists over the following months.
French President Francois Hollande is preparing to visit French soldiers to congratulate them on their three-week campaign. A recent poll in France showed that 75% of people support the intervention in Mali. No doubt, Hollande wishes to capitalise on the campaign’s seeming success as a welcome respite from political pressures over the austerity-stricken European economic crisis.
However, what follows could well be a drawn-out guerrilla war as the French and their allies attempt to eliminate remaining Islamist forces.
The Islamists gave up the towns with barely a fight, choosing instead to withdraw to the Adrar des Ifoghas, a mountainous area north of Kidal. They have been preparing their mountain hideouts for months, storing weapons and supplies.
The French government is eager to remove itself from what could become an unpopular quagmire in coming months. But prospects for a quick exit do not look good.
The French military has had problems with logistics, especially regarding air transport. It had ordered 50 new A400M transport aircraft from Airbus, but delays have meant only three are expected to be delivered this year. It has had had to rely on air transport assistance from other Western nations such as Britain, the US and Canada.
Other Western powers are, for now at least, hesitant to involve themselves in the conflict any further than providing logistical and intelligence support. But “mission creep” is already taking hold.
Canada has extended its one-week air transport assistance, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper quick to promise his electorate that there will be no combat mission. The Canadians already have soldiers in Mali protecting diplomats.
The US has promised to provide air tankers to refuel French aircraft in flight. This is important for the French effort, as northern Mali is twice the size of France and the enormous distances restrict the amount of time French warplanes can spend over a battlefield.
However, the US is mired in its own conflicts and is not making any strong indications of escalating its involvement in Mali for now.
Britain, on the other hand, has made a spectacular turn around, judging by the rhetoric of Prime Minister David Cameron. In mid-January, Cameron had been at pains to promise “no boots on the ground” and absolutely no chance of British troops engaging “in a combat role”. Britain provided two transport aircraft initially, then extending this to include surveillance aircraft and a ferry.
After the successful French advance and the Islamists’ burning down of a library containing ancient documents, Cameron’s tune suddenly became much more belligerent.
By January 21, Cameron said in British parliament: “We must frustrate the terrorists with our security. We must beat them militarily. We must address the poisonous narrative they feed on.
“We must close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive, and we must deal with the grievances they use to garner support.”
Though promising that any British contribution would be “in the tens, not in the hundreds”, it appears that there are already 350 British military trainers in Mali, 90 soldiers providing logistics and intelligence support and an undisclosed number of a protection force.
How much larger the British force will become remains to be seen, but the verbal posturing hints towards building popular support for a rise.
The greatest hope for the French extracting themselves quickly lies in handing over to a regional African force. So far about 3000 African soldiers, mainly from Niger and Chad, have been fighting alongside France’s 3500 troops. An ongoing occupation and counter-insurgency campaign will require many more soldiers.
The Economic Community of West African States and the African Union (AU) stressed the need for a strategy broader than just a military campaign to deal with the conflict in Mali, involving negotiations and economic support.
With the intervention under way, the AU is seeking to form an African force, AFISMA, as quickly as possible. This will require US$400 million, which will have to come largely from the West. AFISMA may only be ready to intervene by September.
Training a loyal and efficient Mali Army is not an easy task for the West. The Mali Army was already receiving Western training before the French intervention. The $500 million US-led training mission was criticised by General Carter Ham, commander of the US Africa Command. “We didn’t spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and military ethos,” Ham said, in response to a coup carried out in March last year by the Mali Army.
This same army proved incapable of defeating the armed Touareg liberation forces.
The Mali Army is not capable of securing control of Mali;s north on its own, But has proven capable of severe human rights abuses. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) has called for investigations of summary executions and abductions.
Reports suggest that the victims of the Mali Army are accused of working with Islamists, possessing weapons, having no ID or being part of ethnic groups labelled as “light skins”.
Casting about for allies, French officials have recently been speaking to the MNLA. The secular Touareg group has not opposed the intervention, and expressed its willingness to join with others to fight the Islamists. However, it insisted it was opposed to the Mali Army entering territories it controls.
The Mali government, for its part, is wary of any dealings with the Touareg liberation forces. Interim Mali President Dioncounda Traore said on January 31 that he was open to talking to the Touaregs as long as they did not raise their demand for independence.
France finds itself in a difficult situation. Its own army is hampered by logistical difficulty. Its imperialist allies are reluctant to test their own war-weary populations by involving themselves further in another quagmire.
The regional African force is under-resourced, under-trained and still many months away from being of any help. And the Malian Army is corrupt, inefficient and, due to its ongoing atrocities, a political liability.
It may a pointless mess, but France is intervening for a reason ― not to defend people against Islamic fundamentalism, but to protect French economic interests.
Seventy five percent of France’s energy comes from nuclear power and there is lots of cheap uranium in the region, especially in neighbouring Niger. Al Jazeera reported that French uranium, oil and gold companies are eager to start developing northern Mali.