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The unexpectedly sudden French military action in Mali is a first step toward reunifying the country, but it also highlights the risks for outsiders, including the United States. In the days ahead, the US will need to balance its cautious instincts on Mali with the imperative to help shape events as they unfold. In the months ahead, the US must reflect on the future of American counterterrorism and democracy strategies in places without a massive US military presence.

Until last week, all signs were pointing to a lumbering international invasion in summer or fall 2013 to displace Islamist extremists from northern Mali.  (Recall, this all started with the March 22 coup, an overnight collapse of the Malian military after a new Tuareg rebellion, and the commandeering of that revolt by Al-Qaeda-aligned radicals.) But everything escalated last week after Jihadists went on the offensive in central Mali and France responded on January 10, first with air attacks and then with ground troops.

Credit: Joe Penney / Reuters

Coverage and analysis of the conflict in Mali has been, in my view, pretty good given the circumstances.  (Twitter is the best way to go. In the traditional press, I particularly recommend following David Lewis and Bate Felix of Reuters and freelancer Peter Tinti who often writes for Christian Science Monitor).  My initial takeaways of the events of the past few days:

1. Vive la FrancAfrique

First Sarkozy and then Hollande promised to end ‘Francafrique’, the idea that large swathes of Africa are still treated like France’s backyard, and to instead normalize relations. In fact, Hollande pledged this just a few weeks ago in a speech to Senegal’s Parliament. But it’s not looking like a whole new world. In fact, we are barely two weeks into 2013 and France is already concurrently involved militarily in a war in Mali that will draw at least 2500 troops, has failed in a hostage rescue attempt by French Special Forces in Somalia on January 11, and increased its troops to 500 in the Central African Republic to help evacuate French citizens. And let’s not forget, France still has soldiers stationed in Djibouti, Gabon, Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire.

Contrast French assertiveness with the near-silence on the Mali crisis from emerging powers.  None of the BRICs are particularly relevant here, but even South Africa has been a non-player. (Given South Africa’s appalling response to the Cote d’Ivoire crisis in 2010-11, maybe we should be thankful they are steering clear?) ECOWAS had been playing an active diplomatic role and pledged 3000 troops, but, when push came to shove, the regional community was unable to act quickly and, frankly, needs Europe. Even Nigeria has reduced its troop pledge claiming (I think probably accurately) that its forces, now active in 33 of Nigeria’s 36 states, were consumed with threats at home, including from Boko Haram.  None of this bodes well for a new era of aggressive multilateralism.

2.  US Caution Good, US Passivity Bad

For the United States, the challenge is to find a constructive role and exert influence without getting dragged into a quagmire—or being left behind to merely react to events.  Susan Rice famously called French plans for Mali ‘crap’, but those concerns are now OBE. Instead, the US will now have to support France with logistics and intelligence. (This is the easy part, but still could conceivably go wrong.). Washington will also need to resist any temptation to over-react to Islamists in the region or allow any ill-conceived US action to make things worse. (This should be manageable, but will become harder once US forces draw down from Afghanistan and Africom looks for new things to do.)  Over the long-term, The Pentagon and the State Department should aggressively rethink the future of American security cooperation and democracy support, starting with a frank assessment of what’s gone wrong in Mali, where we’ve had intense military support for at least eight years in a country that was considered a democratic paragon. (This last mandate is very difficult, but necessary if we hope to avoid repeating the same mistakes all over again).

3.  What’s the Post-Kinetic Political Exit Plan for Mali?

Even if the military campaign goes well and the major towns are recaptured, the medium-term outlook is very worrying. Let’s assume that French strikes are successful, collateral damage is limited, and ECOWAS deploys in a peacekeeping role.  Then what?  As I’ve argued before, the road to a stable northern Mali starts in the capital Bamako. Containing extremists in Mali requires cooperation of Tuareg militants, which requires a durable political solution to Tuareg grievances, which in turn requires a legitimate government in Bamako to make and implement a deal.  But Bamako is a mess. The junta, led by putschist Captain Sonogo, is still in charge, and I see no signs yet that a credible political transition is underway.  France now has a tremendous moment of leverage.  Will they use it?  Will the United States?