The French decision to intervene in Mali this month was taken quickly, and the immediate strategic goal was clear: to reverse the advance by Islamist rebels into the south of the country. Now this has been achieved, France faces what may be a more difficult decision. Should it build on its military successes to date and push on into rebel-held territory in the north? Or should it pause and see if the rebels, having suffered a significant set-back, are now prepared to negotiate?
As I noted in a piece for World Politics Review on Monday, French officials appear to be increasingly willing to extend their campaign, but do not want to act alone any longer. They have gathered pledges of troops from quite a few African countries, led by Chad and Nigeria:
Some of these pledges need to be treated with some skepticism. It is hardly reassuring if Mali has to rely on military help from Chad, a country that needed French military support to stave off rebel attacks only a few years ago. There is little doubt that West African governments are motivated to bring Mali under control: Nigeria, for example, is worried about links between Malian rebels and the increasingly powerful Boko Haram insurgent group on its territory. The Nigerian government has assigned fighter jets as well as ground troops to back up the French. But there are questions over what a combined African force can achieve, especially if Mali’s army is unable to act as an effective operational partner.
An African force could probably provide security in those areas under government control and reinforce the frontline against the Islamists. Could it also mount a victorious offensive into regions held by the Islamists? It’s possible that the French have done the rebels enough damage to make a quick attack feasible. But even if a rapid offensive succeeded, it will be necessary to sustain a longer stabilisation operation to stop Islamists from mounting a prolonged insurgency, which is what France probably fears most.
African forces have an uneven record in this sort of risky strategic environment. West African troops had to hand responsibility for peacekeeping in Sierra Leone and Liberia to the United Nations. African contingents in Darfur have struggled with desert conditions comparable to what they might encounter in parts of Mali. This weekend, West African leaders insisted that they will need logistical and financial support from the UN, EU and the US for operations in Mali. This may be turning into an African war, but Western powers will need to play a major supporting role if it is to stand a real chance of success.
What sort of help (other than financial assistance) could EU countries offer the Africans? Last year I published an ECFR policy paper arguing that the EU should get ready for “plug-and-play” missions in support of the UN and African forces in cases like Mali. This would involve plugging European “military modules” into non-Western infantry forces. These modules could include: (i) engineering units, (ii) field hospitals; (iii) drones and other intelligence-gathering units; and (iv) specialised communications teams, as well as logistical assistance and planners.
The African troops now deploying in Mali may well need this sort of support even if they do not advance into the north but focus on defending the south of the country. The EU is already sending troops to train the Malian army, parts of which stopped functioning during the recent crisis. Although important, this will be a long-term mission involving relatively few personnel. Providing additional support to the African troops now going to Mali would (i) have concrete short-term operational benefits; (ii) increase the visibility of the EU presence among the Malian population; and (iii) be a useful signal that this is not just a French post-colonial adventure. With luck, the deployment of an increasingly capable multinational force in southern Mali will persuade the rebels – or at least a sizeable faction of them – to look for some sort of peace deal.
The EU has provided direct and indirect back-up to African operations before in Darfur and Somalia. Some members of the Union (including Germany and Poland) have asked whether this is the best used of the bloc’s limited military resources. But there seems to be a consensus in Brussels that stabilising Mali is a worthy cause, and some EU engineers and doctors could help.
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