French President Francois Hollande received a hero’s welcome last weekend as he visited Mali’s historic city of Timbuktu, which French and Malian forces liberated from rebels and Islamist militants. The jury is still out on the merits and risks associated with external military intervention, but with widespread local support and international backing, the French-led mission has effectively captured (in just three weeks) most of the territory that had been occupied by al-Qaeda-linked groups for nearly a year. With a suggested timeline of withdrawal in mind, the struggle to restore Mali’s territorial integrity and political stability is far from over as serious humanitarian concerns remain unaddressed.
How did we get to this point?
While France’s military campaign in Mali has so far been decisive, the international community initially dragged its feet in responding to the crisis triggered by an uprising in the north and a military coup in March 2012. Once held as a beacon of democracy in the region, the military junta brought down a democratically elected president, citing his failure to adequately support Malian troops in quelling a Tuareg-led rebellion which was sparked by the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya.
The power vacuum that ensued in the capital, Bamako, allowed Tuareg rebels allied with Islamist militants to seize the northern half of the country. After months of an uneasy power-sharing arrangement, the Tuaregs’ political aspiration for the establishment of an autonomous state in the north was pushed out and the north fell under Islamist control. By the time the United Nations (UN) Security Council approved an African-led intervention to reclaim the north in December 2012, over 400,000 people had been displaced, fleeing torture, summary executions, the recruitment of child soldiers and sexual violence against women at the hands of extremist militants. But these gross human rights abuses are not confined to the north. Malian security forces have also committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including the extrajudicial execution of Tuareg civilians, indiscriminate shelling of a Tuareg nomadic camp and killing livestock which the nomadic population rely on for survival. The International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda responded last month by formally opening an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed since January 2012 after the Malian government’s referral.
Intervention, why now?
As far as timing is concerned, the French-led mission is strongly linked to the former colonial power’s domestic and foreign policy agendas rather than to humanitarian motives. The intervention in Mali has been a welcomed success for a president whose popularity was waning at home, and he has been rewarded with a slight bump in the polls. French interests in Mali are primarily security-based, as President Hollande’s government insists that it wants to act early to prevent Mali from becoming a retreat and training center for Islamist terrorists should an Islamist state take hold there. But the presence of French energy companies in Mali suggest that France’s long-term goal of securing resources in the Sahel—particularly oil and uranium, which the energy company Areva has been extracting for decades in neighboring Niger-also appears to be a motive. However, much time will pass before Mali’s resources can be extracted, which means that security interests are at the forefront in France’s current military campaign.
Regardless of France’s motives, there is widespread acknowledgement that the intervention is legitimate, and it has received the backing of the international community. It came at the request of the Malian government as Islamist forces began to advance toward Bamako. Vice President Biden commended France on its leading role in the Mali campaign and the European Union sees the operation as a counterstrike against the threat of Islamist jihadists who could use the Malian Sahara as a safe haven to launch international attacks.
The way forward
Although insurgents have been driven from Mali’s main northern towns, President Hollande cautioned that the mission was far from over while insisting that France would withdraw its troops from Mali once the country’s territorial integrity has been restored. The mission will then be transferred to a UN-backed African military force, which is being deployed prior to the beginning of UN peacekeeping operations. There are legitimate concerns of a protracted war. Furthermore, Adama Dieng, Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, warned of the increasing risk of reprisal attacks against ethnic Tuareg and Arab civilian populations in the recently liberated towns of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao regions in northern Mali. While security takes precedence, the international community must respond to the humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of Malians and provide political support to the interim government to build the necessary democratic institutions that will address longstanding grievances and prevent another crisis.