Mali security nightmare: Why foreign intervention alone won't stop the chaos

A divided Mali could become a haven for armed groups and a security nightmare for the whole of West Africa and far beyond. But foreign military intervention alone will be insufficient to address the turmoil. External troops will need the help of local and regional civil society organizations.

Adama Diarra/Reuters
Members of a pro-government militia in Mali take part in a training session at their base in Sevare, Nov. 12. Op-ed contributor Peter van Tuijl says 'Military intervention in Mali has to be accompanied by a clear plan for dialogue and mediation to support political transition and stabilization of the South, with a similar plan to engage with different parties in the North.'

The West African nation of Mali is the subject of several crises at the same time. Against this backdrop, calls for a military intervention in Mali are getting stronger. An area the size of France becoming a free haven for uncontrolled armed groups is a security nightmare for the whole of West Africa and far beyond. But foreign military intervention in and of itself will be insufficient to effectively address the chaos there. External forces would need the cooperation of local and regional civil society organizations.

The legitimacy of what was once a strong democratic state in Africa has suffered from drug trafficking, corruption, a disregard for ethnic tensions, and other forms of weak governance. When armed groups spilled into Mali at the end of the war in Libya, they found a fertile ground of grievances among local communities. In a matter of weeks, the north of Mali was occupied by an ad hoc coalition of different factions.

Having conquered the North, these groups turned on each other. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azwad (MNLA), with its base in the endemic Tuareg communities, lost out from groups promoting an Islamic state. The North is now under an aggressive patchwork rule of non-state actors, with grave consequences for the safety and rights of local people, in particular women and children.

Meanwhile, instead of fighting the insurgents, the Mali military converted its frustration into a coup in the capital Bamako, which further destabilized the country. Thanks to a diplomatic intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the military junta quickly agreed to a transition of power. By April, this led to the establishment of an interim government. However, despite the restoration of a level of constitutional order, the interim government continues to suffer from tensions among civilian politicians and the military, and does not have a strong grip on what is left of the country.

The international community is keen to prevent the emergence of an “Afghanistan in the Maghreb.” In Bamako, initial resistance against a foreign intervention has waned with international pressure and the opportunity to get access to different kinds of support, including military hardware and training.

Foreign military intervention in Mali, approved by the UN Security Council Oct. 12, should aim to stabilize the South, especially in Bamako, and set the stage for dialogue with different parties in the North. However, external political and military forces in a conflict zone don’t usually do well with multi-tasking. Local and regional civil society organizations should be involved to address the complexity of the situation.

It is expected that about 3,000 to 4,000 troops from ECOWAS countries will enter Mali soon, with logistical support from France, the US, and other countries. But what exactly are these troops going to do?

The situation in the North can never be resolved within the confines of the Malian state if the South is not stabilized. While the South is stabilized, the process of dialogue and negotiations with forces in the North cannot wait. The difficulty for the intervention is that it has to enable both simultaneously.

The risk of a military intervention in Mali is that it will end up concentrating solely on a military solution in the North. This would require significant forces and presents a hazardous scenario. Nowhere has a hard, security-only approach proved the way to undo a context in which radicalization is thriving on local grievances. Moreover, many of the Islamist fighters in northern Mali are footloose, and an occupation of the North would merely push them into neighboring countries.

Military intervention in Mali has to be accompanied by a clear plan for dialogue and mediation to support political transition and stabilization of the South, with a similar plan to engage with different parties in the North. Where external military forces focuses on security fall short, civil society organizations can play an important role in helping to develop these dialogue processes.

Divisions among Mali’s civil society can be overcome by establishing a framework to bring many different stakeholders to the table. Such a process will be an important test-case for the collaboration between ECOWAS and regional civil society organizations such as the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding.

There is no war to be won in Mali. If ECOWAS troops enter the country, they should help to stabilize the situation by preventing fighters from the North to further advance to the South, and use their leverage to support a regional framework for dialogue at all levels. African civil society representatives will be indispensable in helping structure this military intervention to resolve the crisis peacefully.

Peter van Tuijl is the executive director of Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict.

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