French troops in armoured personnel carriers rolled through the streets of Kidal in northern Mali on Wednesday. It was the last major city to be retaken from Islamists after a three week offensive by French forces which swept through Mali's cities with lightening speed. Passing cheering local residents and the charred remains of the Islamists' cars with their mounted machine guns still visible, the moment might have reaffirmed the confidence of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said the intervention in Mali would be over in a “matter of weeks.”
Famous last words, perhaps. While his optimism might serve as a confidence booster for a western world skeptical of military intervention, and a morale boost for his troops operating in such difficult battle terrain, the idea that the French will be able to solve the problem in a couple of weeks is highly unrealistic.
The French intervention has been seen by many to come at the right time and with the right backing. The Islamists, made up of a number of groups from around the region, had begun to launch an offensive which saw the capital become increasingly threatened. At the same time, talks between the Tuareg Islamist group Ansar Dine, and the government, had seemingly broken down, with the group releasing a statement denouncing the failed talks and calling for an 'Islamic State of Azawad'. Azawad being the Tuareg name for the northern half of Mali, which is said to be around the size of Texas.
As a result, Mali's interim President had requested France's military assistance and several U.N. resolutions were made—even with the blessing of Russia and China. According to sources across Mali, the vast majority of Malian people are fully supportive of France's decision to intervene and overwhelmed with excitement that their country could be returned to them.
Although Malian hopes are high, the same dreams have been raised and shattered by numerous western governments before interventions in the past. As we saw in these previous conflicts, France has adopted a similar tactic choosing heavy airpower as a way to flush out the Islamists. Like it failed in Afghanistan and Iraq before, it is doomed to fail in Mali. “The leaders [of the Islamists] are not scared of airstrikes,” said one former Tuareg leader in regular contact with leaders of the Islamist groups. “They do not have bases, or fixed positions, they just appear and disappear as they like, this is the land they know.” He added that for months the Islamists have been preparing contingency plans for a military intervention and while it may “hinder their offensive, it will come nowhere near to wiping them out”.
While leaders of ECOWAS have said airstrikes will be effective at eliminating rebel convoys which will be easily spotted if travelling through the desert, sources in the north are not so convinced. The rebels have made a myriad of caves and secret places to hide their heavy arsenal. “They can disappear and reappear in an instant,” said one man who has travelled with the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). “They hide their weapons, become traders, or swap groups, then come out when the coast is clear and the order is made.”
Another factor which really puts France's optimism into question is the nature of their enemy. The Islamists they are fighting are not an army, nor are they even a unified group, they are an extremely complicated, layered, and fractured array of groups who have come together in recent months. At the top of the pyramid is AQIM, under which are a myriad of different groups each with their own agendas. While some wish for an Islamic state in Northern Mali, others aim for a global jihad and the rest are just keen to get a share of the lucrative drug trade and kidnapping business which makes the groups millions of dollars every year. Every week sources in the region say that AQIM is creating new brigades, with different names, and new groups are emerging, coming from across the region. In such a scenario, it will be difficult for France to actually chase this “enemy,” who is able to quickly fragment and disappear into the local population and with such porous borders surrounding Mali, the Islamists can also flee to neighbouring countries and return when the French decide to leave.
Will the French decide to cross borders? If not, there is no way they will be able to wipe out the Islamists within two weeks and will just end up creating problems in neighbouring countries leading to more intervention. The Islamists cannot be contained, they do not have bases on hills which can be wiped out, or fixed flags which can be taken down. They have a web of networks across the continent—two events in the last week have demonstrated this, and the danger of only regionalizing the conflict.
The first was the attack on a gas field in Algeria by an Islamist group, and subsequent kidnapping of dozens of foreign nationals. The group who conducted the attack said they did so in retaliation for the Western intervention in Mali. And more recently, on Sunday, an Islamist group in Nigeria attacked and killed several Nigerian soldiers en route to be deployed as part the of the first ECOWAS troops to enter Mali. Following the siege, the group released a statement stating that the attack was part of efforts to prevent the Nigerian troops from “demolishing the Islamic Empire of Mali.”
Support has even been voiced by al-Shabab. "Our brothers in Mali, show patience and tolerance and you will win. Warplanes never liberate a land," Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, al-Shabaab's spokesman, said in a statement on the Internet. It seems there is a danger that the intervention could only unite groups which were previously fragmented. Now with a common goal, the intervention could only be radicalising further the Islamists of Africa and entrenching western forces in another long, bitter and most notably counterproductive conflict, which could eventually span across the whole continent.
Even if the Islamists do leave Mali there was still a conflict and tension raging between various different groups before they arrived. Mali was already a failed state and until it is repaired will always be a breeding ground for Islamists and the criminal groups which work from within their ranks. Before the Islamists even began to be a threat, Tuareg rebels were fighting against the Malian government leading to the coup which helped create the power vacuum in the north. Arguably the most important man now in power in Mali is Capitain Sanago, who led the coup and is seemingly running the country like a warlord. And even before all the recent events, Mali had been labelled as a sham democracy, full of corruption and ethnic strife. One of the dangers of such a regional intervention is that Mali's various neighbours will use the various ethnic groups to their own advantage, eventually playing them against each other leading to a sectarian mess similar to Iraq. Already Human Rights Watch has reported that the Malian troops are using the new offensive to launch reprisal attacks on Tuareg and Arab communities. Already there are reports that Malian civilians are looting homes and shops of Tuareg communities and there are fears of violent attacks.
Whichever way you look at it, there is no quick fix for Mali. The Western powers who are gearing up their forces for intervention need to carefully look at alternative non-military options and the long term implications of their actions. They should also consider the fact that their recent involvement in Libya is what led to an increasingly unstable Sahel and the subsequent surge of weapons around the region. The risk of not forward planning and learning from previous mistakes is a never ending cycle of intervention, whereby the problem is just pushed around the region never achieving long term solutions and wasting lives and millions of dollars in the process.