France needs more than force in Mali
January 16th, 2013
08:11 PM ET

France needs more than force in Mali

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.

More from CNN: U.S. could provide support

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.

More from CNN: French not pacifists

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.


Post by:
Topics: Africa • France

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. jacquesdégalité

    The Tuareg nationalist group MNLA has stated its support for France in this conflict. Is that the kind of local support you were referring to?

    January 16, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Reply
    • killaw

      Thanks for the welcomed info, good to see that the MNLA nationalist Touregs take a positive stance for a peaceful settlement, moreover they can help to bring back to the fold the splinter warthugs who hijacked their cause all while being the best-suited and more politically relevant people to bring back the fight on the Islamists in the North, they are in their backyard and know the grounds better than anybody else and have the sympathy if not the backing of the locals. Sounds good.

      January 16, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Reply
  2. JAL

    What is going on in Mali?

    January 16, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Reply
    • Fred

      Just bringing democracy and the Western way of life to the heathens whether they like it or not like they did in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali all oil or mineral rich. Sudan and Rwanda where millions have been slaughtered are not. Draw your own conclusions. Money talks

      January 16, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Reply
      • killaw

        What a garbage. Draw your own conclusions.

        January 16, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
      • rightospeak

        Right on , Fred.

        January 17, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
      • Rocksaldt

        "Killaw": while conspiracy theories may be getting tired, you might also consider the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This is not a game of "Risk", as you imply. Big bombs kill innocent people. Already have, actually. Do you think it's of any consolation to the average goat herder on the ground because these killings are "accidental"? Not to mention, most of the people who will inevitably get caught in the crossfire were already treated like garbage by the Malian govt. Something tells me they will not be so quick to abandon their cause to fight a common enemy, at least not in a sustainable way.

        January 17, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  3. JohnH

    Biggest risk is if there is high civilian casualties as France liberates southern mali it could turn the populace to support Islamist. That may be the reason why Islamist where quick to attack the south even though they knew they would get routed by opposing force. It is similar strategy to what happened in Soviet Afghan conflict. Where mujahedin launched attacks on pro afghan government areas to get the soviets to bombard civilian areas.

    January 16, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Reply
    • Rick

      Its obvious the islamists are foreigners, I don't see why any Mali citizens would support them.

      January 18, 2013 at 10:45 am | Reply
  4. Quigley

    Let's all hope that no matter what happens in Mali, that neither the U.S. nor Great Britain worm their way in! We sorely need to let the people of Mali decide their own future without foreign interference!

    January 16, 2013 at 11:28 pm | Reply
  5. 100 % ETHIO

    What lessons do France is showing to N. Korea, Iran, and others who would like to build their muscles?

    If Mali was a Nuclear arm Country, France will.............

    January 17, 2013 at 2:42 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed the militants had lost the world's sympathy as they destroyed the historic sites of Timbaktu, which was the core of the ancient Malian empire going back to the fourth century, It was conquered by the French in the middle of the 19th century. After a brief experiment in federation with Senegal, Mali became independent in 1960.
    In the early 1990s the nomadic Tuareg of the north began an insurgency over land and cultural rights that persists to this day. The central government's attempts at military and negotiated solutions had failed. The insurgency gathered pace in 2007, and was exacerbated by an influx of home-coming Tuaregs with arms from Libya after Gaddafi's fall in 2011. The Saharan branch of al-Qaeda was quick to move into this increasingly lawless area, and seized control of the north after the March 2012 military coup, effectively seceding from the rest of Mali and establishing Sharia rule. Their advance to the south prompted France's intervention last week, which might turn into a mission creep.

    January 17, 2013 at 8:54 am | Reply
  7. rightospeak

    Sounds like old fashioned colonialism. It was Indochina before,Algeria- I thought that we are living in the 21 st Century ?. The new socialist leader is trying to take people 's attention by this excursion away from French economy so that he can shove down French throats more of the Globalist Agenda.
    CNN is censoring more and more and it is becoming harder and harder to comment. They probably could care less what we think-they just want for their propaganda to get through. Oh, if we could only get get some of the old fashioned investigative journalism like Helen Thomas, Bill Moyers, Phil Donahue ( can't remember the spelling)-they were all victimized to silence the truth.

    January 17, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  8. Matt

    When you are staring into the abyss, bogged down in two AO's, looking at the worst defeat the country has ever seen. And you know al-Qaida are going to move to North Africa and set up Mullen's feared third front. That is when you learn who your friends and allies truly are. Dark days back then in 2005. The French were there in those dark days ready to help and stop the third front from being established. Because there was nothing we could do, we did not know if we would get out of Iraq and it was possible we would be bogged down and still stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq as al-Qaida opened up the third front in North Africa. Believe me that is depressing stuck in two AO's watching the enemy open up a third front. And not having the capability to prevent it.

    January 18, 2013 at 5:39 am | Reply
  9. Chat

    I conceive you have observed some very interesting details , appreciate it for the post.

    September 7, 2015 at 11:37 am | Reply

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.