With the northern part of Mali now under militant hands, regional countries are being left with no option but to provide a credible threat to intervene militarily. But will neighbouring states be able to sustain their intervention?
There is now deep concern that northern Mali is becoming a haven for terrorism and a launch pad for attacks in other parts of Africa. Moves are on hand to accelerate efforts by the international community to conduct a military intervention to avert another Somalia-type situation. If a military intervention goes ahead in Mali, there seems to be little doubt that it will be regionally driven. Both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) have shown a remarkable willingness to take responsibility for the military intervention.
Indeed, the experience of the AU peacekeeping operation in Somalia is being looked at as an example[i] of a largely effective African solution to a local problem with regional and, to some extent, international ramifications. In reality, the parallel between Mali and Somalia appears overly optimistic when several factors are taken into account. For instance, the state of military capacity of most ECOWAS members is no match for the far better equipped armies contributing to the AU's AMISOM mission. In Somalia, Ugandan and Kenyan forces, among others, have been crucial to the success of this year's offensive which has forced Al-Shabaab to withdraw from key strategic cities. The counter-terrorism training they have received has been part of a $340million US support programme for AMISOM personnel, which now number approximately 18,000.
A Coalition of the Willing?
On the other hand, the 4,000 troops that ECOWAS might be able to deploy would mostly come from countries with rather limited military capabilities and very little, if any, experience of sustained counter-terrorism operations. Neighbouring Nigeria, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, the Ivory Coast and possibly Liberia are expected to contribute troops.[ii] Of these, only Nigeria can display a more substantial military capacity; yet, its army is largely embroiled in a difficult confrontation with the country's domestic terrorist problem, the extremist group Boko Haram, and may therefore be keen to limit the number of personnel taking part in the ECOWAS force.
Algeria, Sahara's greatest military power, might eventually agree to provide a few troops; yet, for the time being, the government has limited its involvement to the handling of the political side of the UN Resolution, which will primarily involve mediation and negotiation efforts between the recognised government and the rebels. This is not surprising as Algiers's strategic calculus is largely shaped by the country's experience with terrorism in general and Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in particular. Active military participation in Mali could resurrect an internal terrorism problem that the country has been able to contain rather effectively in recent years. Kenya's experience in Somalia is quite indicative in this sense; its intervention in the southern part of the country has been essentially aimed at preventing criminal and terrorist spill-over into Kenya's vital tourist industry to the immediate south. Yet, such a military offensive has significantly contributed to the 'export' of terrorism across the border, with a spike in the number of attacks carried out in some of Kenya's major cities this year at the hands of Al-Shabaab's militants and supporters.
There is also a significant difference in the operational environment in which such a mission would take place; the vast desert terrain of northern Mali arguably poses a far greater logistical challenge than the urban environment which has been the main theatre of operation for AMISOM troops. In fact it is worth noticing that - despite being pushed out of most towns Al-Shabaab still controls large rural areas in southern-central Somalia. Struggling to eradicate the group from these remote areas, AU and Somali forces now face the tough task of turning their recent military gains into solid strategic success.
In Mali, it will also be crucial to define the terms of the partnership between an ECOWAS force and the national army. At the moment, it appears unlikely that ECOWAS troops would lead the offensive in the north. Despite having softened its stance and opening up to the possibility of having foreign troops supporting the recovery of the rebel-held territory, the Malian army still retains considerable political influence in the capital, Bamako, and would probably oppose the endorsement by the interim government of a foreign-led operation. A possible scenario could thus be for ECOWAS troops to secure Bamako and the south, while the national army would take on the fight to the rebel and Islamist forces in the north.
This seems to justify the emphasis placed on providing effective training to the country's military; such effort would certainly contribute to give a 'Malian face' to the offensive - a factor that may also help political forces in the capital regain a degree of legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the northern population. It could also prevent - or at least counter - possible Islamist propaganda pointing to the presence of 'foreign invading forces' in the country which might be used to rally support and attract both local and international Islamist fighters.
Military Options and the Enemy Variable
There is no doubt that the re-establishment of territorial integrity would represent the primary goal of such a mission; what is difficult to predict at this point is whether that will require a prolonged military campaign against a united rebel front. In this regard, the mediation effort aimed at opening a positive dialogue between Bamako and the Tuareg rebels could well determine the future direction and nature of the military engagement. With the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad now apparently willing to settle for autonomy rather than full independence, a window of opportunity for a political resolution of the crisis might soon open up; this could then be exploited to win over local elements and gradually isolate - or at least make the north more hostile to - the Islamists.
This strategic calculus could be complicated by the sort of resistance that the latter would be able to organise. Of the three Islamist groups known to operate in the north, only Ansar Dine has connections to Mali's politics and environment. Yet, with fighters from Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Algeria among its ranks, the group led by Ag Ghaly is now viewed as a truly international outfit.
Similarly, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) - an offshoot of AQIM - has reportedly managed to attract hundreds of recruits from Burkina Faso, Senegal and the Ivory Coast, in line with its broader operational focus on West African countries. To further complicate the picture, disturbing reports are beginning to emerge of a few European extremists flowing to the region with the aim of joining Islamist groups on the ground.
However it is possible that, confronted by a reasonably well equipped and organised military force, most Islamist elements will choose to avoid direct engagement and retreat. Already the prospect of military intervention seems to have persuaded Ansar Dine to soften its stance and consider negotiating with Bamako. It is still too early to say whether the group's new position is genuine or not; after all, the opportunistic attitude of its leader is what better explains Ansar Dine's shifting alliances so far. Thus, the group's preferences could further change in the near future. Yet, the prospect of playing the role of key powerbroker and ultimately determining the fate of the crisis may be enough to keep its leader Ag Ghaly on the negotiating table, and possibly avert military confrontation.
Meanwhile, internal tensions have emerged within both MUJAO and AQIM, which might eventually impact on their ability to organise and sustain a credible resistance. The former has apparently been hit by the defection of a military commander from Niger, complaining about the treatment of black African fighters by the mostly Arab leaders. If such tensions are confirmed, it could deal a significant blow to MUJAO which has been relying on the flow of fighters from neighbouring countries to boost its ranks. Similarly, AQIM's organisational splits and leadership rifts - acknowledged recently by the group's emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel- could point to a lack of coherence in the activities of its members and, more importantly, poor commitment to a clear strategic agenda. It is thus inevitable to question the group's ability and willingness to engage in what could become a long military confrontation, especially if its various factions will prove more interested in pursuing lucrative criminal businesses than in the establishment of an Islamic state.
Ultimately, the very prospect of military confrontation may persuade some of the Islamists to retreat 'to fight another day' - mainly in the case of AQIM - or to take part in a political dialogue which could grant them more than they would be able to achieve by solely by fighting. The irony is that - to have any chance to avoid a difficult and costly campaign - the threat of such intervention needs to be credible. The international community must now give substance to the assertion that Mali cannot be lost to extremism and terrorism.
 Justin Marozzi, 'Mali Can Look to the Strategy in Somalia', Financial Times, 18 October 2012
 Drew Hinshaw 'Few to Take on Mali Militants', The Wall Street Journal, 17 October 2012
*Header image courtesy of Voice of America