The French military offensive in Mali halted militant Islamists’ drive southwards and dislodged them from parts of the northern region, but the fight is far from over, and the country’s future unsure.
IRIN sought the views of four analysts on what the Bamako government’s strategy should be to reconcile its people and restore security: Peter Pham (PP) of the Atlantic Council, a US-based think tank; Andy Morgan (AM), a writer and journalist specializing in West Africa and the Sahel; Abdoulaye Sall (AS) of the Cercle de Réflexion et d’Information pour la Consolidation de la Démocratie au Mali (Centre for Reflection and Information to Consolidate Democracy in Mali); and Magnus Taylor (MT), editor of African Arguments, a political analysis website.
Q: What would the next steps be should Islamist fighters eventually be dislodged from northern Mali?
PP: What is happening and what we’re seeing is the beginning of an insurgency of a sort. This was entirely foreseen. In order to successfully manage the extremism and contain it in northern Mali and roll it back, there is need to invest time to develop a legitimate government in Bamako and an African-led force with Malian army that is capable of a counter-insurgency campaign.
AM: The focus should be on a very broad discussion with traditional elders, the political elite and all the stakeholders in the Malian society on how Mali should function in the future; the relationship between the different regions and cultures of the country. This should go alongside the process of reconciliation and justice.
AS: It’s perhaps a little too early to talk of the next step given that the first one is not even over yet. The territorial integrity remains to be totally achieved. [However], the return of people forced to flee to neighbouring countries should be done professionally and should involve local leaders, traditional and religious leaders as well as civil society groups. The same should be done for the internally displaced people.
MT: There’s a need to work out who is on which side now; what is the status of the Islamists who have been chased; calculate whether there is going to be an insurgency now that there is a military intervention. The Malian government needs to make an assessment of a policy towards the Tuareg - what sort of settlement to have in the north.
Q: Specifically, what should Mali, its neighbours and international supporters focus on to achieve long-term stability?
PP: It is not the optimal option, but [the solution is] targeting and neutralizing these [Al Qaeda-linked] individuals, leaving their minions in disarray, which gives time to work on the political solution. This was advocated by US policymakers for some time. This was the difference between them and the French who wanted to go in quickly. If anything is to be learned from Iraq and Afghanistan it is this; this is how you invite in a long-term counter-insurgency operation.
At the moment we have untrained African forces that are ill-equipped and not integrated to each other to respond to a very complex situation. We need to buy time to train them up and equip them. Having created a situation where garrisons and patrols will be needed in the north, France needs to increase, not decrease, her troops.
For every couple of hundreds militants for hire you only have one strategic leader. Targeting individuals would require drones and electronic surveillance equipment. The USA may have the technological capability, but whether it can deploy in every circumstance - the administration needs to make this decision.
AM: Security and bringing back the people in refugee camps are major priorities. Reconciliation is important, as is the need for a political model. The elections [planned for July] are happening too soon. Elections [only] work in a country with basic stability. Holding elections in the spring of 2015 is more realistic.
AS: Malians don’t have a clear understanding of the role of the UN, African Union and ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] in conflict resolution and peacekeeping. A vigorous information campaign is needed. At the same time there is need to prevent and manage conflict through decentralization. There are 761 local administrations, but they need to be included in conflict resolution. The local authority is the most appropriate level for conflict resolution.
MT: An effective deployment of ECOWAS troops. The idea is also to buy time for negotiations and come to some political settlement with the Tuaregs. You have to get the politics right. You are not going to get security by declaring war. The drug trade routes [in West Africa] are not just a Malian problem. It should be approached in a different way - dealing with the causes of drug trade. This is a problem of corruption that can be solved by developing institutions that can be immune of the corruption of drug money.
Q: How do you deal with the separatist demands of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the recently formed Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA)?
PP: The Tuaregs had turned on the Islamists. What’s not yet clear is that they [the Tuaregs] have a partner they can do business with in Bamako. The only way to fight a counter-insurgency war is if they have a legitimate government they can make a deal with. They and they alone have knowledge of the terrain and people in the north to fight the counter-insurgency battle and to hunt foreign elements out. The Tuareg historically have had three deals with Malian governments that were legitimate, but all of them are now in the dustbin of history. Why would they possibly believe that a deal with the current batch of characters would hold?
AM: There is need for a mediator that both sides trust. The MNLA cannot have constructive negotiations with the Mali government right now. The only country that can play mediator is France. The MNLA also needs to be told some truths. They made some very bad mistakes - they decided to fight alongside Ansar Dine [one of the three militant groups that occupied the north]. Azawad independence cannot exist. Not now. Not in 150 years. The main reason is Algeria does not want an independent Berber [indigenous North African ethnic group] state in its southern border. They have Berber people in their country and they sincerely believe that this will have a domino effect. Everybody in the region is not going to accept that and the MNLA should know that. Because Ansar Dine has split, the moderate part that the international community contemplates having discussions with is the MIA.
AS: The MNLA, an association of a minority among the Tuaregs which does not have an electoral mandate, cannot and should not substitute the regional and national councils and the elected lawmakers in Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu regions and the entire Malian Tuareg people. It should be disarmed, respect the constitution and ask for forgiveness from the Malian people for having become a Trojan horse to jihadists and narco-traffickers.
MT: The MNLA is, in effect fighting on the side of the government after the Islamists hijacked its mission. It is in a weak position because it had to be bailed out not just by the Malian army, but also by the international powers. The other group to negotiate with is Ansar Dine. The MIA are also positioning themselves for negotiations, I think they will be given attention.
Q: What role should Mali’s neighbours play to contain a spill-over of Islamist militancy?
PP: There has been been a radicalization across the Sahel. That ultimately needs a political solution. How did it blossom in the Maghreb? You have to look at the annulling of elections in Algeria many years ago and the civil war that followed. Algeria is one country that didn’t experience the Arab spring - so that is an indirect cause for radicalization. Radicalization is a threat across the board, but not all radicals are equally threatening. There are more dangerous ones and less dangerous ones.
AM: Violent jihad is like a boil that appears on the body. A bad doctor will cut it open and squeeze it. A good doctor will say: “Why did that boil appear?” Governments need to make sure that people at the bottom of the pile are less hungry and angry and that they are not vulnerable to violent jihad. Al-Qaeda was in northern Mali for 10 years. The reason it was there was because of corruption. Some local politicians, commanders and businessmen benefited from the presence of AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb]. Violent jihad is born out of desperation. For an average young Malian or Algerian who sees no other way out of his problems, violent jihad is attractive.
AS: By taking part in the military operation in Mali… and supporting the participation of local, traditional and religious leaders in fostering democracy and decentralization.
MT: There aren’t many of these guys [extremist Islamists] in this region. The Islamist threat in this region has been exaggerated. It’s not like there is a huge support for radical Islam in the region. The big Islamist threat came out of Algeria in the 1990s. The problem has not been solved, it’s being suppressed. The Malian government doesn’t have the capacity to fight the Islamists. The Algerian government has a better capacity to do it. There is also need for better intelligence of what this threat is.