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Mali’s post-coup transition in the South and the separatist rebellion in the North are two distinct but inter-related crises. Neither can be ignored by Mali's friends. But the current planned interventions seem both muddled and wrong-headed.  The South appears destined for a prolonged and ambiguous political transition that will eventually get to new elections and put the military back in barracks. At the same time, Mali’s interim government claims it is readying a military campaign to retake the North.  Meanwhile, the regional ECOWAS has pledged 3,300 troops and the U.S. and France are talking of providing logistical support to this effort while also considering options to deny any safe haven to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

This all has the makings of a debacle. I really hope I’m wrong, so please challenge my reasoning. Here are my starting assumptions:

  • Mali can’t retake the North militarily.  The security forces have never really controlled the North, had been losing badly to the rebellion prior to the March 22nd coup, were easily over-run after the coup, and are probably even weaker today.  This is just not a plausible option.
  • ECOWAS can’t take the North either.  Regional troops could probably support a police/peacekeeping function in the South and help to implement a political transition.  They are not suited to fighting either the MNLA or Islamists. Even with heavy outside support, I don’t see how ECOWAS could do more than, at best, hold a few Northern towns. They have no real capacity to hunt AQIM or defeat the Tuareg rebels on their own territory.
  • Tuareg nationalism and Jihadist extremism are incompatible. The long-term political goals of the Tuareg are misaligned with the aims of AQIM and other extremist groups. Although they are currently making common cause against the Malian state and foreign intervention, smart policy could drive a wedge between them. In fact, doing so is probably a necessary condition for long-term stability.
  • A solution to the North requires a political deal short of independence. Any sustainable peace must address the underlying grievances of the Tuareg and other groups, but likely also will have to maintain Mali’s territorial integrity.
  • The outlines of such a deal are already well-known, but Southern credibility is lacking. Previous peace deals—such as the 1992 National Pact (as part of the 1991 Tamanrasset Accord) and the Algiers Accord in 2006—contained provisions for special status, limited autonomy, and increased investment in the North.  In hindsight, the main reason these previous deals failed was because Bamako was unable to deliver their end of the bargain, at least partly because the government was politically exposed in the South and under fire for being too accommodating. (Recall the junta’s initial justification for the 2012 coup was that the war against the Tuareg wasn’t being prosecuted with enough vigor.)
  • A credible new government in Bamako is many months away. I don’t see how the transition—even if things go well, elections are held quickly, and Captain Sonogo departs the scene—will take less than at least another year.
  • Any new government will probably not be overly empowered to cut a deal. Whatever eventual new government emerges, I think it’s highly unlikely that it will be sympathetic to Northern grievances or have strong incentives to find a lasting solution.

All these assumptions and interlocking conditions, lead me to believe that we have some obvious cognitive dissonance among policymakers—and a serious sequencing problem.  Instead, I conclude:

  1. A Fight-First strategy can’t work. Neither Bamako nor ECOWAS can live up to its sabre rattling and I suspect the MNLA and others know it.
  2. South first, then North is the inescapable sequencing.  If a political deal is an essential part of the overall approach, then how can this happen without a credible government in Bamako?  I just don’t see it otherwise.
  3. A more practical strategy for outsiders should focus on three prongs:
  • Pressure political actors in Bamako to accelerate the political transition ASAP and to accept meaningful autonomy in the North;
  • Act to contain any chaos in the North while driving a wedge between nationalists and Islamists;
  • Push for a lasting negotiated peace and then support its implementation more robustly than in the past.

I sure hope that I’m wrong, but I worry that we are setting up both Mali and ourselves for another round of diplomatic and strategic failure.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.