French and U.N. Troops Are Losing the Battle to Save Mali
It was never going to be easy securing a vast country with incompentant leaders
Imagine your country is a beacon of democracy, when suddenly, it’s overrun by angry rebels and hardcore jihadists. To add insult to injury, elements of the army — after losing control of half the country — stage a haphazard coup and throw your president out of power barely months before the next election.
That is what happened to Mali in 2012, although the country being a “beacon of democracy” was more wishful thinking on the part of Western donors, not least the United States, than actual reality.
Few Malians would dispute that 2012 presented the absolute low point in their nations history, although they will get into bitter arguments about who is to blame for that.
For some it is the Tuareg rebels, who kicked off the civil war with weapons acquired from Libya after they formed an ill-advised alliance with Islamist hardliners. Au contraire those rebels will answer, it is the southern Malians and their politicians who have marginalized northerners and never made good on promises in earlier peace agreements.
Others will lament the corrupting influence of French colonial rule, continued Western meddling or insufficient adherence to the teachings of Islam as the main culprit for the country’s malaise.
But no matter who is right and who is wrong in this debate, Mali is approaching a new low. The absence of security, lack of trust and an incompetent government are coming together to uproot the few signs of Mali’s progress.
Things were looking a bit brighter. In late 2012, France intervened militarily after Islamist fighters ousted Tuareg rebels from northern cities. Aided by U.S. intelligence, French planes and special forces unleashed havoc on the jihadi forces, and forced them to retreat to the vast expanses of the Sahara that dominate northern Mali and the region at large.
A United Nations peacekeeping force deployed to Mali, staffed primarily by soldiers from around the region and backed by Apache gunships from the Netherlands. A European mission embarked on bringing the Malian army back up to scratch, and everyone pushed for the junta of Malian officers to vacate the government and elections to be held as soon as possible.
With veteran politician Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta elected president in 2013, focus shifted to hashing out a peace agreement between the government and the Tuareg rebels, culminating in the signing of the Algiers Accords in June 2015.
Despite the progress on paper, the situation is rough and getting worse. A coalition of government-aligned militias and some of the rebels are ignoring the peace accord and continue to battle over territory. While the Algiers Accords theoretically remain in force, the parties to the contract can’t even agree on who will staff its implementations committee.
France still has hundreds of soldiers in Mali and thousands more deployed to the region. But jihadi groups have expanded their attacks both in terms of reach and severity. All nine administrative regions plus Mali’s capital Bamako have by now experienced major terrorist attacks.
Several recent visitors to Bamako have told War Is Boring that security has become tight in the city, with frequent checkpoints manned by police. No one we spoke to was optimistic about the government’s ability to prevent further attacks.
“The authorities take the situation very seriously,” said Kamissa Camara, a political analyst with the National Endowment for Democracy. “But they don’t have the means to deal with it.”
In the latest example of jihadi violence, Al Qaeda in West Africa — a group also known as Al Murabitoon and led by veteran jihadi Mokthar Belmokthar — attacked a hotel in Sévaré, a town 600 kilometers northwest of Bamako and on the main road linking the country’s north and south.
At least 12 people, including five United Nations personnel were killed before Malian soldiers supported by French special forces ended the siege.
Malians are losing more and more confidence in foreign troops. French and U.N. forces are increasingly unpopular. A few years ago, Malians hailed them as saviors.
Southern Malians allege that international forces basically handed over Kidal — a major city in the north — to the MNLA, a Tuareg-dominated rebel group following the city’s liberation from Islamist rebels in 2012.
The Malian media frequently describes the U.N. force, also known as MINUSMA, as being sympathetic to the MNLA. This came after the blue helmets intervened in confrontations between the rebels and GATIA, a militia supportive of the Malian government.
MINUSMA has two other added disadvantages. In most cases, the peacekeepers can only use force to protect their own troops. Nor are they numerous enough to guarantee the security of Mali’s vast territory, giving the appearance of total impotence in the face of increasing violence.
But Mali’s most serious problem is the country’s own leaders, according to Camara. “The major threat to Mali as a whole is the lack of leadership at the government level,” she said.
Keïta ran an energizing campaign, but he has turned out to be a “weak president,” Camara added. This has led to Malians to become disillusioned with his tenure. The rest of the government is no better.
“The ministers are not united on anything,” she said. The president’s cabinet is a result of political clientelism and compromise, and the officials “don’t have anything in common.”
Keïta is also reportedly battling health issues, possibly explaining the lack of political action on the part of his administration. Between his illness and increasing political frustration, few would be surprised to see his mandate cut short.
“People are afraid of a new coup d’etat,” Camara said. The last one in 2012 was a haphazard affair — more a mutiny gone horribly wrong than a premeditated power grab. But it sent Mali, already reeling from the rebellion in the north and Islamist influence, to rock bottom.
“The growing fear is that Mali is now falling well below where it was in 2012,” Camara said. “Everything is bad.”