Last month, French military forces freed the main population centres in northern Mali from jihadist control. Progress on the military front has created new political momentum as Malians plan to go to the ballot box this summer, ending 15 months of interim rule. But as the European Union deploys a training mission to build the Malian armed forces, the hardest work still lies ahead. A fragile transition phase approaches as the French get ready to hand over responsibilities to AFISMA, the African-led mission. Recent clashes in Gao and a car bomb in Kidal show that the peace has not yet been won. Political reconciliation is a long way away, regional spillover of the conflict is increasing and a jihadist threat remains. Superficial comparisons with the EU’s effort in Somalia are misleading ; European member-states will need to play a more central role and commit for the long term to increase the prospects for stability in the Western Sahel. Four challenges in particular stand out.
The first is to continue to pursue the jihadists. This requires sustained counter-terrorist operations and considerable human and signals intelligence efforts. The military phase has now concentrated on the inhospitable Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range on the Mali-Algerian border. Chadian forces, US and British surveillance assets and US, British and Italian refuelling aircraft are supporting the French. The threat of ambushes, improvised explosives and shoulder-fired missiles, coupled with the unknown terrain, means that the operation may last several weeks or months. Concern for several European hostages - thought to be held captive in the Ifoghas – also commands caution.
The counter-terrorist operations impact the region at large. Close co-operation with Algerian security forces is necessary, to avoid their side of the mountains becoming a place of refuge. Jihadists have made their way to Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and perhaps further afield. Mauritania recently arrested nine people suspected of links to the jihadists. Spill-over to Algeria or Niger could jeopardise key mining areas. In response, the United States and France have strengthened their military presence in uranium-rich Niger. As the AFISMA mission continues to deploy, it is drawing in states from the region, placing their soldiers in harm’s way. An offshoot of the Nigerian Boko Haram terror group attacked Nigerian soldiers en route to Bamako, killing two. Kidnappings in Nigeria and Cameroon show that instability may spread at the expense of Western interests. A bomb-scare on February 4th at the airport of Ouagadougou in the Central African Republic involving a Malian Tuareg has put other states on edge as well. Further out, Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based sister organisation has similarly called for a jihad in the Sahel. Although regional security services are on high alert, they are also at risk of becoming overstretched. It is necessary to co-ordinate security efforts and share intelligence. European intelligence services, in particular in the UK, should assist in this process. On the military front, European states should sustain their commitment to the French operation with logistics and surveillance support.
The second challenge is to consolidate the gains made thus far. Mali is vast and in many places the government has a limited presence. The French operation focused on the main urban centres, and has left smaller villages and rural areas untouched. This creates the risk of a power vacuum that local militias or remaining jihadists can exploit. The African-led stabilisation mission is meant to fill the void, yet it is suffering from corruption, insufficient capabilities and lack of local knowledge. There are plenty of practical concerns. For instance, while Malians and many AFISMA troops are French-speaking, the operation’s Nigerian commander is not. The mission could turn out to be a case of the deaf helping the blind. Due to these and other concerns, the United Nations is gearing up to take command of the mission. This may also enable non-ECOWAS states, such as Algeria and Chad or EU countries, to join the operation under a single command. It would however slow the deployment for several weeks, leaving parts of Mali vulnerable. This means that Paris’s March deadline to withdraw its forces may not be realistic, requiring France to stay longer.
Although the EU Training Mission starts soon, its mission is focused on rebuilding the Malian armed forces so that they can re-establish control over the country. Brussels is taking its cues from its experience in Somalia, where some 120 EU trainers have helped reform Somalia’s military. Confidently, the EU has called that training mission a ‘European success story’. The parallels with the plan for Mali are striking. As in Somalia, the objective is to support the ailing government by training its armed forces to restore territorial integrity and rout jihadist rebels. As in Somalia, the EU operates alongside a UN-mandated stabilisation operation composed of African forces. As in Somalia, the training mission is part of a regional comprehensive approach, consisting of a patchwork of several EU missions. In the Horn, a small-scale EU civilian mission is helping develop a coastal police force while European navies are fighting pirates in the Gulf of Aden. In the Sahel, the EUCAP-SAHEL civilian mission is focused on strengthening the rule of law and the justice system. It is now only active in Niger, but will expand to Mauritania as well. An EU mission to help secure Libya’s borders is also likely.
Yet this is where the parallels stop. In Somalia, the training takes place in neutral Uganda. In Mali, the training centre is just north of the capital Bamako. In Somalia, a previously non-existent state is slowly expanding its influence over the south of the country with the help of the African Union. In Mali, an embattled and corrupt state is struggling for survival. Two decades of civil war, years of political negotiations, external military intervention and a wholesale collapse of the state have created war fatigue in Somalia. While this means progress in Somalia will be slow and uncertain there are grounds for optimism. Mali’s lethal cocktail of emerging tribal tensions, a power vacuum, jihadist presence, a deteriorating food crisis, foreign intervention and supplies of small arms is much more recent. In Somalia the Transitional Federal Government has international legitimacy, while in Mali civil-military relations are a mess. The interim government is the product of a coup d’état, while in-fighting among different factions of the Malian armed forces raise doubts over who the EU will be training. In an environment where Somalia looks good in comparison, the job surely is difficult.
The EU’s objective is to train the military so it can maintain and enforce territorial integrity. It will rearm Malian forces and prepare them for offensive operations. This puts pressure on the traditional image of Europe as a ‘civilian’ power. On paper, the EU trainers are excluded from combat, but they could be drawn in to give practical training and advice should an insurgency pick up steam. It may create fissures within Europe. The French have already criticised Germany for not responding more quickly with military support when the intervention started. Now Berlin’s ‘culture of military restraint’ must digest a combat training mission.
Since 2010 the EU has trained 3,000 Somali forces. Although the EU is sending twice as many trainers to Mali as to Somalia, some 240 in total, the fifteen month timeline for the operation is wholly inadequate. The EU should ensure that the Malian army is of good quality. Previously the United States attempted to build a Malian military capable of dealing with the insurgent threat. As became painfully clear, it did not pay enough attention to human rights and civil-military relations. While some US-trained forces played a leading role in the Tuareg insurgency, others starred in the coup d’état meant to counter it. The EU should conclude that investing in quality is the only option. This calls for a long-term effort. Crucially, given the mounting ethnic tensions, the trained Malian forces must reflect the tribal composition of the country and respect human rights.
This leads to the third challenge. Political reconciliation that addresses mounting ethnic and tribal tensions in Mali is essential. If unsuccessful, this can destabilise the western Sahel. Looting and reprisal killings are pitting tribal communities against each other. Lighter-skinned Malians – whether Arabs or Tuaregs – are no longer safe in southern Mali. Kill-lists are circulating and vigilantism is on the rise.
In the north, a worrying development is that the Tuareg Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) ‘liberated’ Kidal, the regional Tuareg capital. They have made clear that no Malian or West African forces are allowed to enter the city, creating a de facto division in the country. The French do not want to be seen as occupiers but AFISMA is not welcome either. Several Tuareg groups aspire to a significant degree of regional autonomy. Although the EU is committed to maintaining the territorial integrity of Mali, it has not excluded a possible measure of Tuareg self-rule.
While giving the Tuaregs special status in the Malian state might clear a path for political reconciliation, this may be unpalatable to the government in Bamako. It would also make Mali’s neighbours nervous. The Azawad, the term for the Tuareg homeland, stretches well beyond Mali’s borders into Algeria, Libya and Niger. In Mali, while Kidal is the main Tuareg capital, Timbuktu and Gao have mixed tribal populations. These cities could become flash points in the absence of political reconciliation. The Tuaregs themselves are also divided, with some backing Bamako and others vying for independence. Other tribes have so far kept relatively quiet, but if Tuareg demands are met at their expense, this may well change. The immediate priority for the soon to be appointed EU Special Representative for Mali is to cajole the different factions to the negotiating table.
Finally, the fourth challenge is to remain vigilant for terrorism against European interests. As the recent kidnappings make clear, European nationals in the region can increasingly become a target. The EU military presence is also a factor in the conflict dynamic. The longer that French and European forces stay in Mali, the greater the danger that Mali and its environs will become a magnet for foreign jihadists. A longer presence might also fuel local xenophobic and ‘anti-colonial’ sentiments. Unfortunately, a longer presence is precisely what the EU should prepare for. The French and other European member-states may have to outstay their welcome to stop the crisis in the Sahel from deteriorating.