France’s decision to intervene forcefully in Mali is a welcome development in the campaign to eradicate transnational terrorism in Africa. It comes after weeks of diplomatic dithering over how to respond to jihadist gains in that country. Some four weeks ago, the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of a West African force led by the “African Union in close coordination with ECOWAS,” without as usual providing adequate logistical and military support. The ensuing delays permitted rebels to spread from their stronghold in the northeast and consolidate control over half of the country. As of mid-January the rudiments of an African intervention force, with limited counterinsurgency capability, were only beginning to coalesce. By intervening in its former colony at the request of the Bamako government, France is doing a double service: freeing Mali’s traditionally moderate Islamic population from draconian sharia law, and preventing the establishment of a permanent safe haven where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and affiliated groups have free rein to attack regional and Western targets.
In early 2012, an Islamist Tuareg group named Ansar Dine joined forces with the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a group of separatist Malian rebels and Tuareg combatants (many of whom had returned from Libya with heavy weaponry) that sought a “ ‘pan-ethnic’ ” independent state” in Northern Mali. In May 2012, the two groups formally merged, but split only days later; since then the relationship between the two factions remains in constant flux. By mid-2012, Ansar Dine had “gained the upper hand.” Indeed, the secular Tuareg rebels reportedly battled the Islamist forces in June 2012 for control of the Northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu but ultimately lost. The Islamists have imposed strict koranic law on the territory under their control—which the MNLA had resisted.
In principle, as I outline in my book Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats and International Security, fragile and conflict-affected countries can offer a slew of benefits to transnational terrorists. In the case of Mali, these include weak border control that facilitates entry and exit, a ready supply of arms—including some flowing south from war-torn Libya, sources of finance from illicit activity like drug trafficking and kidnapping, and potential recruits among ranks of impoverished youth. But the major benefit that such “under-governed” (or more precisely “alternatively governed”) territories provide terrorists is a physical sanctuary. As the experience of Pakistan’s tribal belt long showed, a safe haven provides terrorist leaders with the security and time they need to plan and execute operations.
The emergence of a safe haven, however, is highly context-dependent. It typically requires not only the absence (or acquiescence) of central government authority, but also (as in both Pakistan and Yemen) some level of approval by local tribal leaders and traditional populations. In this regard, Mali’s emergence as a jihadist hotbed took many (including this writer) by surprise. Although Wahhabist-inspired koranic schools with Gulf funding had made some recent inroads, the dominant strain of Islam in Mali was a moderate Sufi strain, as it remains in much of the Sahel. And while violence was hardly unknown in Mali, it traditionally pitted the central government in Bamako, dominated by black Africans, against fiercely independent, ethnically distinct nomadic Tuareg rebels, who showed little historical respect either for the Malian government or established Sahelian borders. (While it is true that some members of Ansar Dine are Tuareg, the Tuareg people are generally secular.)
Indeed, it was the ongoing conflict between the Tuaregs and the central government (widely seen as corrupt) that gave the jihadists an opening.
French president Francois Hollande had long resisted any idea of inserting French troops on the ground in Mali, but was won over by an appeal from Malian interim president Dioncounda Traore, who warned that the Malian army risked being routed at the hands of war-hardened jihadists. Over the past week, French Mirage and Rafaele warplanes, as well as attack helicopters, have pounded jihadist positions in the country’s northeast, to devastating effect. More significantly, French ground troops, slated to reach 2,500 in the coming days (approximately the same number France devoted in Afghanistan), appear to be turning the tide, at least for the time being.
Beyond consolidating its gains, there is the question of France’s long-term aims. On this question, Paris has sent a muddled signal. On Sunday, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius defined the military effort as having three goals, of increasing complexity: “block[ing] the advance of the terrorists,” restoring the territorial integrity of Mali (“which will take more time”), and implementing relevant UN Security Council resolutions to eliminate jihadist presence. As Dominique de Villepin, who served as French foreign minister during the Iraq war, warned in the Journal du Dimanche, “Stopping the jihadists advance south, retaking the north, eradicating [terrorist] bases—these are all different wars.”
Given the parlous state of the Malian armed forces, accomplishing all three objectives will require more staying power from France than the several weeks that French politicians initially suggested. Still, Paris has some factors working to its advantage. Mali’s terrain is far less foreboding than Afghanistan or Pakistan. There is much less popular support for jihadists in Mali than the Taliban enjoyed in its tribal regions. And there is the potential of a peace agreement between the Malian government and the always restive Tuaregs, perhaps mediated by Algeria (which has done so in the past and might again). The result could be a vise that squeezes jihadists out of the country. Over the longer term France’s exit strategy should include building the capacities and forging cooperation among governments of the region to prevent the jihadists from exploiting the weakest regional links. The United States, which has pioneered its own Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, should work hand in glove with its French allies in this effort.