It would have been nice if Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), its offshoot the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine had given the international community the long interregnum it had hoped for to organize an orderly, first-things-first action plan to displace them from northern Mali, beginning with an effort to help sort out the still-confused political mess in that nation’s capital. But alas, it was not to be.
Instead, one can make a reasonable case that the bad guys took the community’s plodding steps as a sign that there was a genuine reluctance among the various potential stakeholders to become fully engaged with any sense of urgency. That being the case, it seems not illogical that the bad guys decided it might be in their best interest to use the time wisely and steal a march on their potential future adversaries by grabbing more militarily strategic territory further south. They could also simultaneously send a strong signal about their own resolve to consolidate their gains and make the community’s task increasingly formidable and difficult.
Perhaps they also sensed an opportunity to add further uncertainty about prospects for successfully displacing them from their newly acquired operational safe havens in the ungoverned open spaces of the greater Sahel.
What seems to have come as a surprise to both the jihadists in northern Mali and most of the international community is that France, for one, was not prepared to sit idly by and wait while those who continue to threaten them serious harm better organize themselves to carry out those threats. And so, after long months of diplomatic discussions, often focusing on how difficult the task was likely to be, Paris seized on an invitation from Bamako, a cry for help really, to show some resolve of its own and strike forcefully back at the bad guys’ latest effort to extend their barbarism deeper into Mali.
In a matter of days, roughly 2,500 French troops, and a presumably larger number of African forces, will be in place in Mali. Combined with what remains of a largely incoherent and divided Malian military, this should be enough military muscle to constitute an effective blocking force to any further southern territorial ambitions by the assemblage of terrorist groups and criminal enterprises now ruling the ancient cities of northern Mali.
Does it pack enough punch to launch an effective military offensive to eliminate any further regionally destabilizing presence from AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar Dine? And is there yet an effective operational plan for doing that? I am going to leave those questions to the military analysts. But however matters develop militarily over the coming weeks and perhaps months, some larger political issues are crying out, from both Mali and the Sahel more generally, for the same kind of urgent international attention that France has decided to jump-start — at least on the military side.
Concerning the future of northern Mali and its place within the territorial integrity of that country, which the international community insists must be maintained, perhaps it is now time for the community to begin to suggest — out loud — some alternatives to the status quo ante that has given rise to so much trouble there for the last half century.
No reason for anyone to have any sympathy for the jihadists in order to recognize that the largely Taureg population of the region has had some legitimate and longstanding grievances with the government in Bamako. And no need to look very far for some inspiration as to what sort of arrangement and best practices might work better.
In dealing with what was once one of its own restive regional minorities, neighboring Morocco set itself on a path – indeed over the last dozen years, a very serious path — to significantly elevate the standard of living of the Sahrawi population of its three southern Saharan provinces. Not just materially, but equally in terms of their inclusion in the political and social decision-making institutions and processes that make up their daily lives.
This spirit of partnership and inclusiveness between the government in Rabat and the local population has turned into an example that might serve as an effective model throughout the greater Sahara/Sahel region. Its potential for application in northern Mali should be more closely examined by those seeking solutions to the “Taureg issue” there.
Indeed, if the few remaining and increasingly isolated intransigents living in refugee camps in Algeria would finally see the wisdom of things, Morocco might be able to provide a still firmer and more robust example for another model that likely also bears further application – not only in Mali but perhaps more broadly in the region. That model being the broad autonomy that Morocco has freely offered to negotiate for the three Saharan provinces – as soon as it has a partner willing to bargain.
And speaking of the refugee camps in southern Algeria, while they are figuring out what to do to sort out the serious threat to regional security emanating these days from the Sahel, the international community, and especially the UN Security Council, might want to take a closer look at the threat posed by the continued existence of those camps. There sit thousands more militarily trained young men, idle, restless, without futures and reportedly being drawn with increasing frequency into the waiting arms of the terrorist groups and criminal gangs controlling the lands and profits just next door.
As the Secretary General’s Personal Envoy said recently – a powder keg. And I would add, a powder keg in a region where a lot of bad guys are playing with matches to boot.
Robert M. Holley is Senior Policy Advisor for the Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP).