Tuesday, January 15, 2013

France Launches Attacks in Mali, US Watches from the Sidelines

On January 11, French forces began airstrikes throughout Northern Mali in preparation for the beginning of the arrival of a regional force of about 3,300 troops as early as next week. I’ve previously written about the ongoing conflict in the country, where in December a Malian tourism official had reported that nearly all of the remaining mausoleums in Timbuktu had been razed. While the loss of culture is devastating, even worse is the growing human cost to the citizens of Mali and the region: the UN Refugee Agency reports that 144,500 Malian refugees have been registered in neighboring countries and 228,918 people have been internally displaced. The actual numbers are likely much higher due to the difficulty of recording these situations amidst such chaos.

Pro-government forces train in southern Mali

The UN approved international mission came sooner than expected by Security Council resolution 2085 due to the Islamist rebel forces’ advance on southern Mali, which the government in Bamako still maintains a shaky hold over. The town of Konna, only 600 km from the capital, was captured by Islamists on January 10 and was the action that prompted the French Operation Serval. If the Islamists had been allowed to reach the Sévaré military airport, international and regional efforts to retake Mali would have been severely hindered if not impossible according to international sources.

While the US has expressed support for the French and African efforts, CIA Director Leon Panetta has reaffirmed that America will commit not ground troops to the conflict. However, the US will almost certainly provide logistical support up to supplying planes for the French and African forces. Although it is not a country often on the top tier of foreign policy concerns (many charge the US with ignoring the extremist elements coming to the Malian fore), an Ansar Dine controlled Mali would still be severely detrimental to efforts to curb radical Islamism in the region and could have dire implications for other North African countries fighting their own internal battles with extremists. Morocco, Algeria, and a still fragile Libya stand to lose the most if Ansar Dine is able to infringe further south or even just maintain its foothold in the north and should provide their own support to the West African mission.

Furthermore, West African and French troops alone could create more unrest due to France’s colonial legacy in Africa and the West and North African differences in language and religion. Including Moroccan and Algerian forces would at least dilute charges that the conflict is one of Christian vs. Muslim. As noted by Vicki Huddleston in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Algeria has already served as a mediator in previous negotiations between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels. Since the Tuareg nationalists have been largely sidelined by the Islamist group Ansar Dine, they could prove a vital ally to fight against the group in the north while international forces push against its encroachment in the south.

With observers already worried that this could become “France’s Afghanistan,” regional partners as well as the United States cannot act quickly enough to provide support. Though the southern government is far from perfect, Ansar Dine has shown such Taliban-esque qualities in the past few months ranging from destruction of priceless tombs to gross violations of human rights that its continued control over the north would be a humanitarian disaster.

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