As France’s intervention in Mali thus far has demonstrated, it is possible even in this post-Afghanistan era for a Western military campaign against armed Islamist groups to be successful—provided that its objectives do not exceed its capabilities.
“The first mission was to stop the Islamists’ progress towards the south, while the second was to ensure that, with the support of African forces, French forces could recapture the large cities of the north. That is done; the mission is accomplished.”—Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister of Defense, January 28, 2013.
The scene is inspiring. Under the shadows of grand historic mosques, Western troops parade through city streets to the rapturous acclaim of cheering local crowds waving (and not burning!) the soldiers’ national flag. Thanks to the rapid advance of these forces, Al-Qaeda affiliates and allies—who in those same streets just days before had been burning books, cutting off hands, destroying cultural monuments, and even stoning unmarried couples to death—are fleeing to their few remaining remote hideaways. Although the above scene is of course drawn from the very recent capture of Timbuktu in northern Mali, it could easily describe the almost identically warm initial welcomes accorded Western forces reaching Kabul in 2001 and Baghdad in 2003.
Having seen such outpourings of appreciation turn into outbursts of insurgent violence before, however, Western audiences are perhaps unsurprisingly more reluctant to greet these French and allied successes with enthusiasm—especially at a time when the lingering effects of the 2008 economic crisis are still keenly felt. Considering the increasing financial costs of modern military intervention (such as the estimated €23,000 ($31,000) hourly operating expense of the Rafale strike fighters used over Northern Mali) governments have an obligation to ensure that all such investment is both limited (i.e., not a bottomless pit into which other government funding priorities permanently disappear) and effective (i.e., directed towards achieving policy objectives more substantive than symbolic displays of flag-waving).
In searching for an illustrative example of how not to apply these investment criteria in practice, one need not look further than US President George W. Bush’s now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” press conference in May 2003. As effectiveness goes, deploying advanced fighter aircraft to ferry a politician a few dozen kilometers to any speaking engagement—let alone one primarily devoted to, well, flag-waving symbolism—does not exactly deliver the best bang for the proverbial buck. Although the speech is perhaps best remembered for its highly premature declaration that “major combat operations have ended” in Iraq (they would last into 2011), Bush’s statement that allied forces “would stay until our work is done” was in the long run more significant and indeed more accurate, revealing the essentially open-ended nature of the administration’s military objectives. In this light, then, Le Drian’s bold “mission accomplished” declaration in the immediate aftermath of the Timbuktu operation may seem at first glance to have been the height of folly.
At the outset of its Mali campaign, code-named Operation Serval [Wildcat], the French government laid out two clear military objectives: first, to halt the rapid advance of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other Islamist militants towards the south, and second, to force the radicals out of Timbuktu and other key northern cities in order to enable a return to civilian control. Furthermore, these limited objectives were accomplished with a considerable degree of efficiency, as France made effective use of African countries’ troop contributions and Western logistical assistance. In this sense, Le Drian was perfectly correct in concluding, from the facts on the ground, that the military objectives of the intervention were fulfilled.
Of course, the lasting impact of the French action—on Mali, on the region, and on the broader campaign against armed jihadist groups—will become apparent only over a longer period of time. Accordingly, a more useful series of questions to consider is about what happens next. Will this limited military intervention advance key Western political and economic goals, such as combating the spread of radical Islamism and promoting economic reform in the region?
The answer is a qualified “yes.” If the principles of limited and effective engagement are carried through into the post-conflict phase, then these short-term military accomplishments can well serve as the building block for Malians themselves to construct the foundation of a lasting and stable settlement, while furthering the long-term interests of the region and international community as a whole. Of course, by itself a statement of principles, however articulate or elegant in its phrasing, cannot bring about substantive change; while many elements were lacking within the early American counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, policy declarations were certainly not in short supply. Accordingly, the remainder of this space is devoted to proposing two specific ways in which these principles can serve as guideposts for continued intervention in Mali, each of which will be considered in turn.
One is to limit subsequent focus on the conflict to the ideological dimension—that is on the battle between Islamist and non-Islamist Muslims. This is not only the most internationally relevant aspect of the conflict, but also the most salient; it far outweighs the preexisting ethnic tensions between Tuaregs and southern Malians that Islamists exploited in pursuit of their own political agenda.
A second is to pursue carefully defined, reasonable goals that can be accomplished effectively, and then choose the most efficient means of accomplishing them. To explain this point, consider a key lesson learned from the US experience in Iraq: avoid setting goals that are rhetorically appealing but realistically impossible, like “winning hearts and minds.” In the US case, this was taken to an extreme: many truly assumed that Iraqis were liberal democrats at heart, “little Jeffersons” who would jump at the chance to practice American-style domestic politics if only given the appropriate institutions. To strive to remake societies on that scale is ultimately counterproductive. (Certainly, these aims can serve to promote national unity within the target state; unfortunately, the basis for that unity will likely be resentment of the state promoting it!) In Mali, while territorial integrity is an important principle, the aim should be far more modest—to encourage compromise by continuing with capacity-building reforms, so that the two sides will have the ability themselves to make and implement the compromise agreements necessary for lasting peace and security.
Battleground in the Islamic “civil war”: the ideological dimension of the northern Mali conflict
In contrast to states further to the south, Mali was never a traditional scene of any sort of inter- or intra-religious tension, let alone violence. While the country’s population has been predominantly Muslim (some 90%), Mali was until recently widely celebrated for its tolerant, inclusive attitude towards its Christian and animist religious minorities. After achieving independence from France in 1960, the predominant cleavages in Malian society were instead those of ethnicity and language.
Included in the Republic of Mali after the French withdrawal, the three desert regions of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal—populated in part by ethnic Tuaregs with cultural and linguistic ties to the Berbers of North Africa—have been restive ever since, staging four separate rebellions over the ensuing half-century. While marked by struggles over political power and natural resources, the first three remained strictly local in nature, as each side showed a fairly regular willingness to turn to the negotiating table. This would change, of course, with the advent of political Islamism. Although this space hardly permits a thorough treatment of the historical and theological foundations of the topic, it would be helpful at this point to pause and clarify: what exactly is meant by “Islamist”, and how did this movement come to redefine the terms of political engagement in Mali specifically?
In short, the term “Islamist” applies to those Muslims who view the idea of boundaries between the religious and the political to be artificial, and prefer to see their faith reflected in public life—whether in the replacement of secular constitutions by a rigorous interpretation of sharia law, or even in the replacement of current nation-states with a resurrected caliphate. To some extent, there has always been a reactionary theocratic current within Islam, dating back to the Hanbali school of (Sunni) Islamic legal philosophy in the ninth century and continuing through the thirteenth-century scholar and theologian Ibn Taymiyya’s invocations of divine judgment to account for the falling fortunes of various Muslim states.
By taking these existing elements of religious fundamentalism and fusing them together with the fervent idealism (and totalitarian practices) of the great ideological movements of the twentieth century—fascism and Marxism-Leninism—the founding figures of the modern Islamist movement such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb created a new phenomenon far more powerful than the sum of its parts. Fueled by an influx of petrodollars from the oil-rich but legitimacy-poor House of Saud that had laid claim to Islam’s holy cities after the British withdrawal from the region, Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its various regional affiliates grew in strength during the 1970s and 80s virtually beyond the notice of Western policymakers and intelligence services, until their expanded activity finally drew attention at the turn of the millennium.
The Sahel region between sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab north was not a major target for the Islamist movement at first. The latter’s austere roots in the Arabian peninsula represented a considerable departure from the region’s moderate Islamic traditions, which included Sufi practices such as venerating holy places that Islamists consider anathema. It was not until given a window of opportunity by the growing political instability following the Arab Spring that they expanded activity in the region; for example, Al-Qaeda signed a “franchise agreement” with local jihadists to form AQIM in 2011.
Even then, Mali remained off the radar until 2012, when Tuareg groups—taking advantage of the temporary vacuum caused by a military coup in the Malian capital of Bamako—formally declared independence as the State of Azawad, citing what they saw as decades of discrimination and bad faith on the part of past Malian governments. Their secular umbrella organization, known as the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), sought to pursue a negotiated settlement with the new regime, only to be dismissed by Malian officials who condemned the Tuaregs as “terrorists.” As a blanket description this may have been inaccurate, but there in fact were terrorists among Tuareg returnees from Libya.
Together with foreign jihadist volunteers, within three weeks these extremist elements would push the MNLA out of the region’s main cities, while raising the literal black flag of their austere interpretation of sharia—and imposing its dictates by force. First, they destroyed countless shrines, tombs, and other sites sacred to local Muslims, but forbidden according to the Salafist interpretation of the Qur’an. This was condemned in the strongest terms by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the umbrella organization of predominantly Muslim states: the “rich Islamic heritage of Mali should not be allowed to be destroyed…by bigoted extremist elements.”
Beyond rhetoric, however, little was done on the international level until the sudden prospect of an AQIM conquest of the entire country of Mali forced France’s hand at the beginning of 2013.
Leading from behind: effective intervention in practice
In the end, the battle against remaining Islamist elements in Mali will be won—or lost—by Malians themselves. Reflecting this sentiment, François Hollande recently declared that “the old post-colonial days are gone; Africa will set the strategy now.” But considering the stark reality of the status quo in which French troops and aircraft have led while Malian and West African forces only followed, how can this role reversal take place in practice?
The first element is ensuring that local troops become the primary “boots on the ground” as soon as possible. But what local troops? Members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have contributed forces, though many are ill-trained; even those from capable militaries such as that of Nigeria have little experience in the specific desert conditions of northern Mali. Accordingly, Western training missions—short-term, intended to transfer skills and increase capacity—need to be accelerated and implemented as soon as possible. Moreover, even with advanced training, ECOWAS forces will necessarily have limited capacity to take on the truly difficult missions—rooting out jihadists from their remaining strong points along Mali’s northern border, as a principal example. Nor can Malian troops, even with their long experience with American special-forces training, carry out this role alone, considering the fraught history of the central government’s relationship with the Tuaregs and other people of the key northern cities.
For this role, then, the MNLA is the ideal partner. As its communications minister stressed in an interview with the author some months before the intervention began, “we know the land, let us do [this] job.” Indeed, in some ways they are already doing it—the MNLA recently captured (and handed over) some of the leaders of the jihadist splinter group MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) who were responsible for the recent bloody hostage crisis in Algeria. Such moves can and should engender trust in potential Western partners, but repairing the divide between Tuaregs and the Bamako government—a divide that has indeed existed in one form or another since the country’s independence—will be harder.
Therefore, the second element is to push the Malian government to hold serious negotiations with the legitimate opposition, leaving every option short of full independence on the table. France is already taking steps in this regard, making a resumption of development aid conditional on the drawing up of a road map for elections, which could be held as soon as July depending on how talks progress. Although there have been recent unhelpful statements from both sides—notably Bamako, whose officials talk about the “liars and traitors” that committed “treason”—there is plenty of room for optimism as well. Previous Tuareg uprisings were brought to an end by well-crafted agreements, such as the Tamanrasset Accords of 1991, which created the autonomous Tuareg-majority Kidal region, and then the 2006 Algiers Accord, which promised more development and the integration of Tuareg fighters into Mali’s army. MNLA leaders have recently acknowledged in interviews that they will “accept” autonomy as a solution, as long as the Tuareg population’s rights and freedoms are respected, and it is granted a measure of political power.
A lack of will or of good faith on the side of the Malian government is not the problem, ultimately. Indeed, in their initial declaration of independence, MNLA officials cited the “anarchic” nature of the Malian state as a key reason for separating. It therefore stands to reason that Western progress on fostering a third element, economic and political reforms, will enable Bamako not just to reach an agreement, but to have the capacity to keep it without requiring further Western involvement down the line.
By adopting this limited set of feasible, efficient policy goals, France and its international allies can do far more than celebrate the single mission thus far accomplished. By quietly bringing an end to the entire campaign in this way, this plan may not earn any flag-bedecked parades or gushing press coverage; but by helping non-Islamist Muslims take a giant step closer towards eliminating the threat of armed jihadism from the globe altogether, it will be cause for celebration even for the most jaded Western observer—or taxpayer.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.