In Mali, a war ends but instability lingers

The French drove out Islamist rebels in northern Mali. But can France and its African allies translate those victories into regional stability and peace?

François Rihouay/Reuters
A French soldier stood guard in an armored vehicle in northern Mali in March. France has deployed some 4,000 troops to Mali, alongside a regional African force.

On paper, the French bid to oust Islamist rebels from northern Mali has been nearly perfect: locally popular, internationally approved, well executed.

The French drove out a mosaic of jihadi fighters and sustained only five casualties. It appears that civilians in Mali were largely spared from the fighting. And now the French say they are mostly ready to draw down and leave.

Mali's small but intense war began Jan. 11 after the rebels, who had controlled northern Mali for the better part of a year, launched an ambitious push to the south, taking towns and recording surprising victories along the way.

The Malian government, its Army swept aside, asked the international community for help. France responded with an array of airstrikes in central and northern regions. The French sold the action at home as necessary to avoid an Afghanistan in West Africa, Europe's back door.

Since then the rebels, who have links to Al Qaeda and who imposed a harsh and destructive version of sharia law, have abandoned the towns they controlled and melted into the landscape.

To be sure, the last three months of French action are an impressive application of modern military intervention – waged from the sky with only a few thousand boots on the ground.

But any pretense that the war for Mali would be a tidy affair was shattered in February when Gao, northern Mali's largest city, was rocked by suicide bombings at the gates of the city.

Since then, French and Chadian troops have been involved in heavy combat with Islamist militants near Mali's mountainous border with Algeria; a string of suicide bombings and protracted gunfights have left the cities of Gao and Timbuktu hanging in the balance.

Whether the rebels would wage a nasty insurgency is now answered in the affirmative. The new question is whether France, its African allies, and the broader international community can or will translate tactical victories against Islamist radicals in northern Mali into a more strategic goal of regional stability and peace.

What the French call Operation Serval forced the rebels to retreat but did not defeat them. Large swaths of territory are not secure.

Nor are the Malian Army and its allies in Africa yet capable of securing the north without help. The handful of battles so far between the Malian Army and the rebels show clearly that French air power and logistical support alone cannot secure the region. Some French boots are still needed.

So as France prepares to draw down and give way to an African-led, UN-approved force, the limits of Operation Serval are more apparent. Cities considered secure are regularly attacked, creating fear that initial successes may be easily reversed.

"Obviously, on a straight kill ratio, they [the French] have done a good job," says Rudy Atallah, who served as Africa counterterrorism director for the US secretary of Defense. Yet Mr. Atallah is skeptical of the view, offered by a French commander, that Al Qaeda's "neck has been broken" in the region.

"I sincerely doubt it," Atallah says. "France has been restricted in its operations to Mali's borders. But Islamists go back and forth across borders. Operationally, they may have scattered them, but the minute France withdraws ... the bad guys are going to come back."

The road lies through Bamako

That "bad guys" may reappear is not a reason in and of itself for the French or a UN force to stay in northern Mali indefinitely. At some point, Mali must defend its own territory. But its politics are paralyzed. The Army is in disrepair. Months or years may pass before a solid Malian state exists.

In Bamako, Mali's capital, it is hard to find evidence of the war. In the relentless heat and dusty commotion, the war feels like a rumor, save for French flags that sprouted everywhere after Jan. 11.

Bamako has all the trappings of an improvised city. Efforts over the years to create a "city center" were outstripped by growing webs of impromptu alleyways and side streets. Public transport is ill-defined, but is attuned to the needs of the poor, and seems to move people and goods better than any technocratic plan could. Traffic jams were supposed to end after a Chinese-built overpass was unveiled two years ago in celebration of Mali's 50th anniversary of independence.

Yet if good government is missing, a polyglot of geopolitical symbols is not: The French legacy is found in language and scattered examples of colonial architecture. The fingerprints of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi are smudged all over, from the "Malibya" gas stations to the few graceless high-rises that dot Bamako's skyline. Chinese plastic goods fill shops, old US aid projects are depicted on faded placards reading "a gift from the American people," and Gulf and Arab influence is seen in many shiny new mosques and Islamic centers.

For some Malians, these are symbols of generosity and progress. For others, they are predatory foreign invaders, corrupting politicians and stifling progress.

Either way, the road to putting Mali back together, after the conflict, after the jihadis, and after the French, must pass through Bamako. Or start here.

When the French intervened, a main aim was to restore the "territorial integrity" of the country. Yet this is a vague and murky objective that can be defined many ways.

"If you look at the political, social, economic conditions of long-term stabilization, those conditions are clearly not in place," says François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "But that was never within the scope of Operation Serval."

Mr. Heisbourg says a "negative" definition of restored territorial integrity means that "you've chased out the bad guys." He defines a "positive" definition as "a legitimate government based in Bamako in control of the entirety of its territory." There's a huge gap between those two definitions, he adds.

Mali requires a government that is both legitimate and capable of making tough decisions for its people, traits that the current government lacks.

There are many complicated reasons for this. But things came to a head last spring, and Mali began a serious slide. In Bamako, where taxis are plastered with images of global celebrities – Madonna, Barack Obama, soccer stars, Osama bin Laden – a new image started appearing. His name: Amadou Haya Sanogo, a previously unknown Malian military captain.

Captain Sanogo was behind a coup d'état that started March 21, 2012, led by mid-level Army officers. It plunged Mali into chaos. The coup toppled twice-elected President Amadou Toumani Touré only weeks before elections. Coup leaders said their actions were justified by Mr. Touré's mishandling of an ongoing Tuareg-separatist rebellion in the north of the country.

Yet within weeks of the coup, ethnic Tuaregs and a panoply of Islamist rebels scored a string of stunning military victories against an ill-equipped and deeply divided Malian Army. They quickly gained control of a vast desert expanse roughly the size of Texas.

A year later, Mali's government is a transitional one, an awkward and incoherent partnership between interim President Dion­counda Traoré – a veteran politician firmly entrenched in Mali's deservedly maligned political class – and elements from the former military junta.

Though they have formally stepped down, various coup leaders continue to wield power from the garrison town of Kati just outside Bamako.

Amid continued political paralysis, and at the request of outside pressures (notably the United States and European Union), a first round of elections is scheduled for July 7.

Why elections are important now is unclear. Many agree that Mali desperately needs a functional government to address problems. But few think elections are an immediate priority.

"Who is running? What is their platform?" asks Ibrahim Maiga, an unemployed Gao resident who opposes the July 7 vote. Mr. Maiga gets by on the few dollars a week that his uncle gives him to guard property. He wants state resources used for something other than voting.

"Elections would be a distraction. The priority should be security and getting food here," he says. Food supplies run low because of insecurity.

Dozens of interviews with ordinary Malians in the north suggest that physical security, food and fuel prices, and a lack of basics, make elections a peripheral concern.

Even in Bamako, enthusiasm for a July 7 vote is hard to find.

"How would they help at this point?" wonders Bamako resident Youcha Dicko. "Would the people in the US accept elections without a real campaign?"

Mr. Dicko drinks tea with friends amid radio parts strewn about his used electronics shop in Bamako. He has extended family in the north and thinks the July vote favors entrenched political parties that won't offer new ideas. Worse, he says, hasty elections could further divide the country. "This would be an election without any real debate ... only the winners would accept the results," he says.

Experts also question the wisdom of July elections.

"I certainly don't think the July date is feasible," says Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., who has worked in Mali. "For one thing, it's going to be in the middle of rainy season, and even in the best of circumstances it is not a great time of year to hold elections."

Professor Whitehouse says technical issues that existed before the coup, such as voter lists, are still unaddressed. Many lists were destroyed while rebels held towns in the north. Refugees and the internally displaced number at least 400,000, and some fear they will be shut out of the political process.

Large areas of northern Mali remain insecure, despite being liberated. As France readies to withdraw, the EU is only beginning to rebuild Mali's broken Army. The United Nations has yet to approve a peacekeeping force, and many wonder if the north is even secure enough to hold a vote. Faith in government is at an all-time low.

Early elections, status quo

Several hundred thousand Malians linger in refugee camps in neighboring Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. For many who stayed through the fighting, a feeling of abandonment in desert towns like Gao and Timbuktu is inescapable. The Malian Army is nominally in control there, but the Malian state is barely present.

Without establishing security allowing refugees to return, there is a serious risk of the "complete disenfranchisement of everyone above the Niger bend," says Gregory Mann, a Columbia University historian of West Africa, referring to the Niger River, considered a divide between north and south.

Another concern is that early elections will reestablish the status quo. Few Malians – even those who opposed the military coup out of principle – are nostalgic for the old government.

"We can't put too much stock in elections creating a legitimate government," says Susanna Wing of Haverford (Pa.) College, who has studied political transitions in Mali. "I understand the urgency of elections [and] the idea that they will help establish legitimate government. But in the Malian context, you have a political class that is viewed as illegitimate ... that is part of how Mali got here in the first place."

In Gao, Mali's largest northern city, the site of recent suicide bombers, electricity is available only a few hours a day. The power comes not courtesy of the Malian state, but overseas donors. With temperatures regularly hitting 100 degrees, and the truly "hot season" just around the corner, Gao residents are increasingly irritated by the lack of goods and services.

In March, when power inexplicably flicked on a few hours early, a Malian friend joked, "It's a party!" He and his brother ran to get their cellphone chargers and started to bicker over access to the lone outlet, just as power again cut off.

"You see, we are already fighting with each other over resources!" he joked, while aware that such problems can spark inter-communal conflict.

The people in northern Mali want better governance, but question if July elections are the answer.

"We need national dialogue," says Awa Traoré, a retired schoolteacher who lives in a simple apartment in the heart of Bamako. "Politicians can influence and dominate elections, but they cannot control the conversation," she says, referencing Mali's democratic transition in the early 1990s, which saw thousands of people, including student activists, trade union leaders, and religious figures, participating in a broad and participatory national dialogue.

According to Ms. Wing, "Something like a national conference could bring people from civil society who represent a wide range of interests into the same space to try to really address some of the critical problems in the country."

The global community can help secure northern Mali and provide assistance. But national dialogue and a political process is not something that can be air-dropped in.

"The Malian political class and civil society are really the only people who can sort out these problems," says Whitehouse. "The French can't do it for them, the United Nations, ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States], the African Union ... they can help. But the Malians are the only people who can really solve the problems that need to be solved. And they need to begin in Bamako; they can't be solved on the battlefield in northern Mali."

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