Is Military Intervention in Mali the Best Option?

ECOWAS is calling for quicker action in Mali, while the UN is struggling to agree upon a strategic plan to combat the various rebel forces operating in the northern. Military intervention is looking more and more like it will become a reality, but the question that now remains is when will it happen, who will be involved, and what will be the consequences?

Although I agree with many African leaders and analysts that the rebel factions operating in northern Mali do pose a threat to African security, especially since now many fear that groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) will begin to sponsor terror group in other parts of the Sahel, particularly Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

Despite the security threats that AQIM and other groups pose to Mali and the Sahel region, before the UN or ECOWAS rushes into a military intervention, it remains necessary to critically evaluation the situation and to know it inside and out so that ECOWAS and the UN don't find themselves in a situation they neither understand nor can control. Furthermore, although military intervention may eventually be the only option, the humanitarian and political consequences of intervention need to be measured against the realistic benefits of such an intervention.

Understanding the Ground Realities and Complexities
New PM Diango Cissoko (Left). Photo via The Guardian
Mali’s political situation remains quite uncertain. The recent forced resignation of former PM Cheikh Modibo Diarra has proven that former coup leader, Captain Sanogo, still has his hands deeply in the government. Because of this, the stability of the national government remains unclear, as the recent ousting as proven. The new PM, Diango Cissoko, created a new unity government on Saturday that is supposed to be more inclusive and representative of the northern regions. The effects of this decision remain to be seen.

Furthermore, as recent Alertnet article explained, a military intervention in the north of Mali may well have the potential to ignite a ‘race war’:

The complications go well beyond complexities of religious or political belief to include entrenched issues of race and ethnicity. Shurkin and his colleague, Stephanie Pezard, warn that an intervention could ignite a ‘race war’. In the past…the worst racial violence in the region has been between Arabs and ethnic Tuareg, both of which define themselves as white, and militias that define themselves as black.
If this were to happen, it would further complicate intervention and resolution efforts in Mali. The population and rebel groups might well become more divided and new conflicts may arise as a result.

Evaluating the Terrorist Threat
I’m always hesitant to label anything as ‘terrorist’ because I feel the term is manipulated far too often these days in order to arose support for interventions in foreign countries where it may not be necessary. When the word ‘terrorist’ is used, it ilicits an immediate response from Western audiences who then blindly support causes they know nothing about.

Initially I was cautious labeling any of the Malian rebel groups as terrorist groups – there is a very big difference between Islamist groups and terrorist groups. Especially given my minimal knowledge on Mali and the Sahel in general, I did not feel it was my place to rush into categorizing any of the groups as terrorist. However, I am finding it harder and harder to deny that AQIM is indeed a terrorist group and now I do not hesitate labeling it as such. The same Alertnet article mentioned above explains:

U.S. Defence Department recently characterised [AQIM] as currently the best funded Al-Qaeda franchise in the world. In early December, the United States' top military official in Africa, General Carter F. Ham, stated that not only had northern Mali become a safe haven for terrorists, but that AQIM has begun training and financing terror networks in neighbouring countries, including Nigeria.
If the war in Afghanistan has taught us anything, it is that engaging with terrorists can often illicit the opposite responses than what is anticipated. If a military intervention were to occur in Mali, the intervening troops/countries need to be prepared that the intervention might well encourage youth to join in fighting on the side of AQIM (either voluntarily or involuntarily).

Tea Time with Tuaregs. Photo via The Guardian
Furthermore, if AQIM is indeed aligned with other terror groups in the Sahel region, such as Boko Haram, it might result in more regional instability, especially if groups such as Boko Haram throw in their support for AQIM. Again, my knowledge of Mali and these groups is minimal, but I am merely trying to think of all the possible outcomes.

Humanitarian Consequences
 Last but not least, it is appearing as if any type of military intervention, be it UN or ECOWAS, would result in a large humanitarian disaster.

According to a recent article by IRIN, preliminary estimates by humanitarian groups claim that over 700,000 could be displaced from an intervention, which includes 300,000 IDPs and over 400,000 refugees who would flee to Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Algeria – putting further stress on many countries who are barely holding it together as it is.
An intervention would severely damage basic services, such as health, education, and agriculture, in both Northern and Southern Mali. Humanitarian agencies suggest that “market prices are likely to be volatile; food insecurity and malnutrition rates could rise”. 

Whether the intervention be led by the UN or ECOWAS, the intervening bodies need to weigh the humanitarian consequences with the potential benefit (or lack thereof) of an intervention. If an intervention does not have the near guarantee of being successful, would it not be more wise to let the situation be solved nationally through politics and diplomacy and let thousands of Malians remain alive and in their home country?
ECOWAS has completed the final outline of their intervention plan and are now merely waiting for approval to carry it out. ECOWAS states are pushing for faster action and criticize the UN for dragging its feet on the issue. Currently ECOWAS has 3,300 troops on standby. 

Do I think military intervention is the right option? No, at least not right now. I think there are still dozens of wildcard factors that could easily change the situation in Mali. I don't believe enough is currently known about AQIM to know who supports them and who they support. This is significant because with this not known, then intervening forces have no idea who their enemy is or could be. Furthermore, I think the humanitarian cost of an intervention is currently too high without enough guarantee that any intervention would be quick or successful.

Do I believe something needs to happen? Yes. But perhaps through national means - through politics and diplomacy. I understand that talks and ceasefires only get so far, but I think more attempts need to be made at resolving this situation without guns before ECOWAS and the UN rushes in and creates an unnatural humanitarian disaster. 


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