By Stephanie Pezard and Michael Shurkin, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Stephanie Pezard and Michael Shurkin are political scientists at the RAND Corporation. The views expressed are the authors’ own.
France’s unilateral ground and air offensive in Mali came not a moment too soon. The Islamists who had seized control of the north launched a brazen offensive last week into central Mali that demonstrated their own considerable capabilities and audacity as well as the Malian army’s continuing fecklessness. France had to act. Unless it creates a coalition of local allies, however, its intervention will probably, ultimately, add to Mali’s chaos.
The French intervention achieves little more than pull Mali back from the brink for the time being. To achieve anything beyond protecting southern Mali from future incursions requires pushing north and deploying a much larger force –some combination of French, Malian, and ECOWAS troops. This would need to happen much faster than any of the timetables for an ECOWAS deployment that had been discussed at the United Nations. Some ECOWAS contingents are already there.
France and ECOWAS will succeed in the short term. In the long term, however, the intervention is likely to fail or make things a lot worse unless France can find local allies in northern Mali including among Arab and Tuareg communities.
France needs allies first of all because there will never be enough French and ECOWAS boots on the ground to accomplish much in a swathe of the desert the size of Texas. Second, local allies represent the best bet for mitigating the significant risk of radicalizing the population and setting off a race war between northern Mali’s self-identifying “white” communities (Arabs and Tuaregs) and its “black” communities (Peuls, Songhays, among others). Third, all will have been in vain if France and ECOWAS leave without establishing in northern Mali at least the political basis for enduring peace, security, and stability. That cannot be done without significant local buy-in. There is also a need for expertise in operating in that environment and general familiarity with the people among whom ECOWAS and possibly French troops will be living and fighting.
France should therefore coordinate military action with efforts to engage with local factions to use as partners and proxies. This is, in effect, how France conquered and secured northern Mali in the first place a century ago. The aim now has changed – strengthening Mali rather than perpetuating colonial rule – but the key point remains finding the right partners. This requires moving beyond ready-to-wear labels such as “Arab,” “Tuareg,” and “Islamist” as well as looking past the named groups like the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to the communities, clans, and other groupings that comprise northern Malian society.
There is plenty to work with: Many factions in Mali’s northern communities have an interest in cooperating to stabilize the region, re-negotiate the North’s relationship with the south, demonstrate that they can bring security to the north, and defeat Islamist militants, who have made a bad economic situation insufferable and whose religious agenda offends many. One must resist the temptation to generalize about what are diverse and fractious communities. As for the Islamists themselves, the available evidence indicates that many fighters signed up for parochial reasons such as local political rivalries or economic opportunism. It should not take much for large portions to change sides.
At the same time, France and the international community must do what they can to help the Malians resolve the political crisis in the capital, Bamako, ideally in favor of leaders who are capable of effective action and have an interest in transitioning back to constitutional rule as well as in finding ways to revive the democratization and decentralization processes begun in the 1990s. These still hold the best promise for addressing the socio-economic and political grievances that prompted the northern rebellion and the rise of militancy in the first place and reconciling Mali’s diverse communities.
For U.S. policy makers, the best option currently is to continue supporting France, while reminding it, if we can remember ourselves, that it will take more than the blunt instrument of military intervention alone to achieve lasting peace and stability in Mali.