By Simon Allison
International support for a military intervention in Mali is gathering momentum quicker than the Harmattan wind blows across the Sahel. In a matter of days, the powers that be (the ones that have the authority and resources to turn intervention talk into boots on the ground) have all come out in favour of getting involved sooner rather than later. Bullish talk from the United States, France, the European Union and, crucially, the United Nations Security Council suggests Mali should get ready for an influx of foreign soldiers.
"It's a matter of weeks, not months, weeks," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Tuesday. This is significant because France is expected to provide the bulk of the logistical support for the mission. The Security Council, meanwhile, has officially indicated that it is willing to give the green light to any intervention plan.
There's no denying that Mali needs some kind of help. The country has been in chaos since the beginning of this year, unable to deal with two simultaneous and existential threats to the state: a military coup which unseated the democratically elected government, and a rebellion in the north which has since been hijacked by Islamist groups of varying degrees of extremism (including the dreaded al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), although the extent of their involvement is unclear).
This instability has created a humanitarian disaster in the north (not least of which was the huge damage wrought on crops by that most biblical of scourges, a plague of locusts, with 260,000 people being forced from their homes. It has caused incalculable damage to Mali's extraordinary history, as some rebel militants have destroyed ancient mosques and shrines. Human rights groups are also concerned about the imposition of strict Sharia law in some cities in the north, particularly the impact this is having on women's rights in these areas. Some reports claim Islamist groups are compiling lists of single, unmarried mothers with the intention of punishing them for infidelity.
But let's be honest: it's not the humanitarian situation that is animating the international response. After all, things are worse at the moment in the Sudans, where some NGOs are warning of a repeat of Darfur in two Sudanese provinces on the new border with South Sudan. Things are worse in Syria, where calls for intervention repeatedly fall on deaf ears.
Instead, two factors are at play in making Mali an irresistible target for international attention. One is the presence of al-Qaeda. It doesn't really matter that AQIM has little or nothing to do with al-Qaeda proper; that the group has its roots in Algerian Islamist groups rather than Osama bin Laden; or that most analyses suggest AQIM is a relatively minor player in northern Mali. The presence of the name alone is enough to distort policy recommendations and place Mali firmly on the frontlines of the War on Terror.
The second factor, however, is much more important. There is little appetite amongst the world's major powers for sending their own soldiers into battle in strange, foreign lands. The USA in particular has been burned by its costly adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Mali, this is not a worry. Standing by, just waiting for the green light, are an estimated 3,300 troops under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). They are theoretically part of the flawed African Standby Force and have been readied by Ecowas, which has been itching to get involved in Mali for months. With international legitimacy from the UN, and substantial logistical and financial support from (most likely) France and the USA, this force is ready to spearhead the intervention.
It's a perfect solution: France and the USA get the intervention they are so keen on, without the risks, while Ecowas – motivated by preventing the spread of Mali's instability across the region – gets the help it needs to make the intervention viable. An elegant African solution to an international problem.
Everyone wins, in theory. Except, perhaps, Mali and the region as a whole. "Such a military intervention could have dramatic consequences and create a spillover that will affect not only Mali but also the entire Sahel and the African continent," writes Abdelkader Abderrahmane, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa. "Firstly, it would be a huge mistake to think that 3,300 Ecowas troops – or even 3,700 – could defeat the (northern rebels). Indeed, there is a strong probability that the latter could simply flee to the different neighbouring Sahelian countries with notoriously porous frontiers which facilitate such movements. Furthermore, fighting asymmetrical forces such as guerrillas amid the dunes and heat of the Sahel, with which the terrorists have had plenty of the time to get familiar, would be hell for the Ecowas forces."
Making the situation even more problematic is the continuing political difficulties in southern Mali, the country's political base. Although a transitional government has been appointed, the military coup leaders retain much power behind the scenes and are unlikely to welcome Ecowas soldiers whose weapons might undermine the army's authority. And how can any permanent solution be agreed while no one's quite sure who is in charge?
Writing in August, the Daily Maverick advised: "Forget al-Qaeda, for now. Forget the militants destroying Timbuktu and rebels imposing their Taliban-style Sharia law across northern Mali. None of these problems will go away until Mali has a credible government, with the political legitimacy to address them. This is where Ecowas should be concentrating its attention and influence, not on half-hearted military interventions in a hostile desert."
Since then, little has changed, except the volume of the voices calling for that military intervention. It's hard not to hear this international chorus as harbingers of doom.