According to the New York Times, the French intervention in Mali to halt the southern march of Islamist forces has gone well. Franco-Malian recovery of the fabled cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal can be foreseen, though the fighting may be very bloody. That will mean fewer amputations and stonings, but it will not resolve the fundamental issues: a detached and discredited government in Bamako, an alienated north, and a fierce popular anger that expresses itself in Islamic terms. All of this against a background of recurrent food insecurity related to desertification. As the earlier example of the Polisario shows, a desert based insurgency can last a long time, perhaps longer than a French commitment to a country that is marginal to its fundamental interests.
The Islamist regime in northern Mali has inherent instabilities: it includes Tuaregs as well as Arabs, who regard themselves as “white,” ruling over a population it regards as “black.” Political maneuverings among those calling the shots amounts to little more than warlordism. Especially if there was a credible government in Bamako–there is not, and no real immediate prospect of one–there is a chance the northern coalition could collapse under its own weight.
French intervention likely forestalls that option. A “crusader” attack on Islam may draw those disparate elements together, though the press is reporting an initial positive reaction from Malians. It remains to be seen whether this latest “crusader” episode will fuel Islamic violence elsewhere. What about the “al-Qaeda links?” Perhaps now it will become clearer how significant they are.
“African solutions for African problems” and the U.S. Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) also appear to be in tatters. The Economic Community of West African States, with UN Security Council authorization, was putting together an African intervention force, though progress was slow. While there may be a future role for such a force, it is bound to be different from what was originally envisaged. As for TSCTP, the core was U.S. military training of elite African units. In Mali, some of those trained were Tauregs, many of whom defected to the insurgents. The fact that the coup in Mali was led by an officer who had received TSCTP training should also be cause for concern.