A better way to keep Islamists at bay in Mali

France says it will withdraw from Mali once an African peacekeeping force is in place. To keep Islamists at bay, the US is considering increasing its military presence in the region. A better approach is to focus on fixing the governance issues that fuel radicalism to begin with.

Jerome Delay/AP
A convoy of Malian troops makes a stop near Hambori in northern Mali, on the road to Gao, Feb. 4. Op-ed contributor Ambassador John Campbell writes: 'As Mali has shown, there is criminality and jihadism in the Sahel, but it has little to do with Osama bin Laden and much to do with the pervasive pattern of bad and abusive governance, too much of which America supports.'

As the French prepare to withdraw from Mali – at least for the time being – and turn over operations to a multinational African force, the Obama administration should not increase its military presence in the region by establishing a new military presence in Niger, possibly with drones. Instead, it should pressure the government in Mali’s capital, Bamako, to get its own house in order, to reach a political settlement with the Tuareg separatists in the north and thereby separate them from more radical elements which, if not destroyed, can be isolated in the trackless Sahara.

America’s security-centric approach should be replaced by a greater US focus on improving governance and countering the corruption that fuels popular radicalism in the first place, rather than relying on security to confront shadowy international networks that appear to be founded more on crime than jihad.

The French and Malian forces have driven the Islamists out of the cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. But, rather than resisting the Franco-Malian onslaught, the Islamists are melting away into the mountains and deserts of the north where they may regroup and bide their time. Absent a political approach to the region’s longstanding grievances against Bamako, they may move south once again when the opportunity presents itself. Should the French withdraw too quickly, that could be soon.

France’s President François Hollande has pledged to Malians on his visit to Bamako last week: “We'll stay by your side as you address rebuilding in your nation.” Though France plans to keep troops in Mali until a UN-backed African military force can take over, already, the deployment of this force has been delayed due to supply and funding shortages. And any hiatus between French withdrawal and the establishment of a credible African multinational force will provide plenty of opportunity for Islamists to return and exploit frustrations with the Malian government.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al Dine, and other radical Islamic groups active in the Sahel region are disunited, often rivals, and compete for the control of criminal networks. They have been allied uneasily with much more moderate Tuaregs in northern Mali who seek autonomy or independence. While the uneasy alliance held the northern cities for nine months, it was inherently unstable.

The Islamist coalition included both Tuaregs and Arabs, who regard themselves as “white,” ruling over a population they regarded as “black.” Political maneuverings among those calling the shots amounted to little more than warlordism or competition among criminal syndicates. Even before the French drove the Islamists out of northern Mali’s cities, if there had been a credible government in Bamako, there is a chance the northern coalition would have collapsed under its own weight.

The withdrawal to the desert following the French intervention provides a new opportunity to win over the moderates in northern Mali and isolate the radicals. That requires a credible government in Bamako that addresses northern grievances and keeps its promises, especially with respect to the long-standing demand for genuine autonomy for the north.

But there is no credible government in Bamako. Instead, there is an uneasy interaction between remnants of the discredited former political class and the military, with the latter seemingly the more popular and with the upper hand. Meanwhile, Western governments insist on elections as a means of restoring a legitimate government. But, elections have been a sham in the past, and are likely to be again in the future, especially while large, if mostly empty, parts of the country remain under Islamist control.

And northerners are unlikely to see elections as legitimate without some kind of agreement with Bamako. As Tuareg rebel leader Ag Assaleh said in reference to the planned July 31 elections, “Until there is a peace deal, we cannot hold national elections.”

Rather than beefing up American military presence in the region, the Obama administration should press the competing factions in Bamako to reach a credible accommodation and open negotiations with northern Tuaregs. Some Tuareg leaders have called for such talks and have expressed an openness in cooperating with French troops and tracking down any remaining Islamists in the region.

Such a dialogue would require the United States to set aside its self-inflicted prohibitions on dealings with a government brought to power by a coup. That, in turn, would require the administration to consult closely with Congress to secure the necessary waivers. US diplomats should also open up a dialogue with Tuareg moderates in the north to facilitate negotiations with Bamako.

The US should move rapidly to address the looming humanitarian disaster caused by the war and drought-induced food shortages by working through, and adequately funding, UN humanitarian agencies.

What about the African multinational peace keeping force? US policy has long supported “African solutions to African problems.” The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with UN Security Council authorization is putting together an African intervention force for Mali. It merits – and needs – Western support. Its troops need training and equipping, which the US and Western donors should provide.

As for US efforts to provide African states with the ability to counter international terrorism, the core of that strategy was military training of elite African units. Even before the Mali crisis, Africans widely criticized this strategy as the “militarization” of US policy, often with prescient predictions that it was future coup plotters who would benefit from the training.

In Mali, some of those trained were Tuaregs who later defected to the Islamic insurgents. It was also an American trained officer who led the coup in Bamako. As Mali has shown, there is criminality and jihadism in the Sahel, but it has little to do with Osama bin Laden and much to do with the pervasive pattern of bad and abusive governance, too much of which America supports. In Mali, as elsewhere in the Sahel and the Sahara, at root the issues are political, not about security. It would behoove American policy to be shaped by that reality. 

John Campbell is a senior Africa fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US ambassador to Nigeria. He is author of the book “Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink”, writes the blog “Africa in Transition,” and manages the Nigeria Security Tracker.

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