19 Oct 2012

Will Mali get an intervention?

Every day news from elsewhere pushes Mali off the TV and the front page. Today is no exception – a huge car bomb in Beirut means that few will take notice of  today’s  meeting of African and European leaders in Bamako.

Yet this meeting is important. It should pave the way for military intervention against the Al Qaeda linked militants who control a vast section of the West African country.

According to a draft  EU statement AFP has obtained in advance, the situation in Mali “poses an immediate threat to the Sahel region as well as to West and North Africa and to Europe”. But the response is weak, to say the least.

“The EU will support Mali in its efforts to restore the rule of law and re-establish a fully sovereign democratic government with authority throughout Malian territory,” the statement says, without explaining how.

When it comes to military intervention it gets even woollier. The EU  “will examine support for the envisaged military force” and “speed up planning of a possible Common Security and Defence Policy military operation to help reorganise and train the Malian defence forces.”

No-one thinks that military intervention will be easy. According to Justin Marozzi in the Financial Times,  the model is Somalia not Afghanistan – African troops, trained and equipped by western forces, but no western ‘boots on the ground’. A UN resolution last week authorised 3000 troops from ECOWAS, the west African grouping, to go to Mali.

The British government– which recently appointed an envoy on the Sahel – and France are expected to direct logistics and intelligence. The French defence minister says it will start happening in a matter of weeks.

But there’s an additional problem – the Malian government is still under the influence of soldiers who staged a coup back in March. Other African countries and the EU want to re-entrench civilian rule in Bamako before doing anything to recapture the north.

Malian forces are resisting that, because they would like to carry on influencing events in Bamako, while others do the fighting they manifestly failed to do when the Islamists drove them out.

Meanwhile, the Islamists are ever more draconian. Yesterday armed fighters from Ansar Dine, a group allied to Al Qaeda in the Mahgreb, destroyed three ancient tombs near  Timbuktu. They already destroyed seven others back in July, as part of their campaign to enforce their strict interpretation of Islam on the population. They have stoned couples accused of adultery, lashed youths for smoking and chopped off the limbs of suspected thieves.

Recently, the Islamists are reported to have recruited hundreds of child soldiers and started a campaign against single women.

How long will this situation be allowed to drift?  Hillary Clinton has mentioned Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) and northern Mali in connection with the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, last month. Security websites are discussing the possiblity of drone strikes.

Back in the summer, when I was talking to refugees from northern Mali who had fled to Mauritania, they were only too aware of the possibilities.

They had two fears: first the Islamists who were making their lives hell, and secondly, bombing and drone strikes which might make life even worse.

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