Questions on Mali

January 23, 2013

A convoy of French military vehicles drive on a road outside Markala, Mali, January 22, 2013 (Reuters)

Terrorist attacks in Algeria and French military operations in Mali have raised questions about the impact of ongoing unrest in West Africa on the United States. Al Qaeda’s affiliate there, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), appears to be taking advantage of the situation, and may be further bolstered by Islamist groups now operating out of northern Mali.

On January 11, the French unexpectedly began a military operation combating Islamist groups in northern Mali, which include AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), and Ansar al Din. Over two thousand French troops have been deployed under Operation Serval. France’s move accelerated the deployment of up to 3,300 regional African troops to Mali, a peacekeeping mission approved by the UN Security Council on December 20. As of yesterday, an estimated 700-800 African troops are in Mali, and many more are in the process of rapid deployment to support the Chapter VII mission.

Initial successes in rolling back the territory held by AQIM, MUJWA, and Ansar al Din since the start of the French military operation are heartening. But there are questions that need to be answered.

  • Duration of the French military commitment: French Defense Minister Jean Yves le Drian stated that the French military goal in Mali is the “total reconquest of Mali.” Le Drian added that the French envision passing the baton to AFISMA. Will the French remain committed if AFISMA is unable to fill the French boots? Should the fight drag on, will the French remain? And if so, in what capacity?

  • Role of the AFISMA forces: The African peacekeeping forces have a one-year mandate to support Malian security forces in recovering territory and to assist in both protecting the population and creating conditions that would support humanitarian operations. The rapid deployment limits the time spent in training for the mission. Will the AFISMA forces have the capabilities to carry out their mission? Will they coordinate with the French troops there as well?

  • Commitment of regional troop-contributing countries (TCC): The number of troops pledged to AFISMA far exceeds the mandated 3,300 soldiers and there is talk of doubling that number. Fulfillment of TCC pledges has long plagued international peacekeeping operations. Further, the Nigerian government, whose soldiers are among the best-trained in the region, faces a direct threat at home from groups such as Boko Haram, which may prompt the government to recall deployed troops in the future.

  • Status of the Tuaregs: A Tuareg-led rebellion created the permissive conditions in Mali for AQIM, MUJWA, and Ansar al Din. The Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (northern Mali), which still seeks independence from Mali’s government, is trying to ally itself with the French now, against the Islamist groups. What happens to the Tuaregs when the Islamists are defeated?

American policymakers need to start considering the answers to these questions to assess whether the current policy of supporting the French military operations and backing the African-led plan for Mali will be sufficient in reducing, and eventually eliminating, the threat posed to American interests by AQIM.