International intervention against the alliance of Islamist groups in control of Northern Mali has been inevitable for some time, yet the acceleration of action by the country’s former colonial ruler has taken many by surprise.
It was a sudden push South towards the capital by Ansar Dine, one of largest rebel militias, that spurred France with logistical UK backing to rapidly deploy troops and launch bombing raids this week, before the main African-led intervention had even begun.
That decision it would seem, was a necessary evil. If Ansar Dine and its associated groups had seized control of more territory they would naturally become harder to displace. That would not be in anyone’s interest, least of all those forced to endure the arbitrary round-ups of anyone deemed to have violated the militias’ warped version of Islam, and the public executions that often follow.
Of course the primary concern for the French and other European governments is not necessarily those horrendous human rights abuses, but rather the spectre of an Islamist stronghold in North Africa that could threaten their national interests or ultimately their own citizens. The French force it appears, has seen off any chance of rebel advances South in the immediate future, apparently buying time for the main intervention force led by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to find its feet.
Still, necessary as it may have been, the speed and scale of France’s involvement could yet generate painful side-affects. The presence of European forces at the forefront of the intervention will be an easy recruiting factor for the kind of foreign Jihadists who have been pouring into the North since last year, whilst the heavy use of airpower increases the risk of civilian causalities.
And despite Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’ throwaway remark “stopping the terrorists, that's done", the French government would do well to heed the law of un-intended consequences; after all it was the removal of Colonel Gaddafi, following extensive international intervention, that fuelled Mali’s rebellion in the first place.
Most importantly, all of the states committing to this intervention must be prepared to play the long-game; for as the situation is Somalia has shown time and time again, such forays are never simple and require political and well as military will to produce any lasting solution.
For one thing, the plight of the Tuareg people must be addressed if peace is to be found. Whilst the current international focus is understandably on Ansar Dine and their ilk, it was secular Tuareg rebels angry at the Malian government’s treatment of their people , who allied with the Islamists last year thus providing a spring-board to their position today. Such groups retain considerable arms and followers, giving them a key stake in what happens next.
Similarly, the role of the army in Malian politics must be curtailed. A military coup last year was intended to remedy shortcomings against the Northern insurgency but had precisely the opposite effect by creating widespread instability and allowing the rebels to advance. Despite a formal handover to an interim civilian President, coup-leader Amadou Sanogo continues to interfere in the running of the country, casting continuing doubt on stability post-intervention.
And as always, the wider regional picture must also be taken into account. Jihadists from countries including Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Senegal and the Ivory Coast are all reported to have arrived in rebel-held towns; many via the network of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). Members of Nigeria’s brutal Boko Haram have also been sighted. Whilst French bombing raids may remove the immediate threat from rebel strongholds, only an on-going regional security effort can have any hope of preventing small foreign insurgent groups from de-railing Mali’s future.
Overall, international intervention stands to liberate thousands of people suffering under the brutality of Islamist control in Northern Mali and to bring some degree of stability to a nation in unprecedented turmoil…but it is only the start.