These days, when Western politicians or analysts discuss the possibility and likely consequences of an international intervention, they tend to refer to Syria. This is understandable, given the gravity and complexity of the crisis unfolding there.  But the focus on Syria has led us to overlook the growing international support for intervention in another country: Mali.

Mali used to be regarded as a poster child of democracy in Africa. But in March 2012, mutinous soldiers in Bamako, its capital, overthrew the elected government of President Amadou Touré.  The soldiers were particularly upset by what they regarded as the government’s mishandling of a rebellion by nomadic Tuareg rebels in the country’s vast northern desert; and soon after the coup, the Tuareg rebels seized much of the north. The military coup left the Malian Army disorganized and unable to defend it northern region, which has since fallen into the hands of radical jihadi factions who pushed out the Tuareg rebels and imposed a merciless application of Shariah law.

After months of discussions and attempts to negotiate an end to the crisis, a military intervention to recapture Mali’s Islamist-held north is now becoming more likely. In mid-September, Mali’s interim president sent a letter to the United Nations asking for help—though at that time the idea was still being contested by thousands of anti-intervention demonstrators who took to the street in the capital.

“Particularly worrying is the fact that no clear plan exists to ensure that a military intervention would not exacerbate the already disastrous humanitarian situation in Mali.”

In the past few weeks, the tide elsewhere has turned decisively in favor of an international military expedition, incorporating what remains of the shattered Malian army, to end the Islamist takeover in the north. On October 12, the UN Security Council passed a resolution declaring its “readiness” to respond to Malian demands for an international force, and giving a 45-day deadline for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union to submit a detailed plan for military intervention.  Thus, a broad-based international consensus appears to be forming that could soon see war being waged in northern Mali (an area roughly the size of France). And the domestic Malian context also seems to be changing, with street demonstrators opposed to the deployment of foreign troops now apparently outnumbered by those who want their country to accept outside help.

Although UN officials have repeatedly invoked the suffering of ordinary Malians, the key factor enabling the emergence of this consensus is not the plight of the civilian population but the perceived international threat posed by radical Islamists operating in Mali. Indeed, the menace is being portrayed as spreading well beyond Mali’s borders: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called northern Mali a larger safe haven that could allow terrorists to extend their reach and networks in multiple directions. In her words, This is not only a humanitarian crisis, it is a powder keg that the international community cannot afford to ignore.”   

At the UN, France, under its new President François Hollande, has been particularly active in promoting a systematic diplomatic campaign in favour of ECOWAS intervention. He shares the fear that jihadists such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) could transform northern Mali and the wider Sahel region into a safe haven for radical militants, who could then go on to mount operations beyond Mali’s borders. As such, President Hollande views this initiative as part of a broader effort to demonstrate a new partnership-based French approach to Africa (a departure from the more arrogant style of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy); and thus he insists that France will follow the lead set by the countries of the region. France and the U.S. are expected to provide intelligence and logistical support for the operation,  and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has also indicated that Germany would be prepared to train Malian security forces and would consider providing material support for an international operation.

ECOWAS apparently envisages a phased approach concentrating initially on security in the government-controlled south, on retraining the Malian army and on protecting refugees and villagers. Little appetite exists for an immediate attack on big rebel-held towns such as Timbuktu and Gao. The hope seems to be that the presence of the intervention force on the ground in Mali will persuade the local element of the Islamist factions to agree to a political solution. Negotiations continue, and there are still hopes that a deal might be brokered with local Malian rebel leaders. However, ECOWAS and its Western allies think that military action will probably be necessary against hardline foreign-led jihadists.

Although international opinion now appears to be coalescing around the view that military action will be unavoidable, a concrete plan for such an operation has yet to be produced and many difficult questions remain unanswered. When should a military intervention occur? Who should command it? Exactly what should be the mandate of international mission? Which countries should provide the troops, and who should pay for the operation?

Particularly worrying is the fact that no clear plan exists to ensure that a military intervention would not exacerbate the already disastrous humanitarian situation in Mali. Aid organizations have repeatedly warned that an armed intervention could make an already fragile situation much worse, largely because any intensification of conflict could make it even more difficult for communities to access the aid they need. More broadly, it is also far from clear that the international community has a credible long-term plan to help Mali address its structural problems; indeed, we have not even seen a viable plan aimed at dealing with the major food crisis that has deeply affected the country.

The international community’s commitment to come to the aid of Mali is laudable, but it remains to be seen if this will translate into actions that could really improve the lives of ordinary Malians.

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