COMMENTARY BY: COLE WILHELMI, CIRA BLOGGER
On January 11th, the French military launched Operation Serval, a unilateral invasion of Mali to support the national government and eliminate the rebels. In its early days, the operation appeared to be a resounding success: French and Malian troops re-secured Konna and pushed northward, driving the rebels out of Diabaly, Hombori, Timbuktu, and several other strategic Malian cities.
But as Operation Serval enters its second month, the conflict has taken a troubling and disturbing turn. On February 8th, the first suicide bombing of the conflict was reported. Two days later, France’s advance into Northern Mali was stopped when Islamist rebels conducted heavy guerilla attacks against the city of Gao. It seems more and more likely that the conflict could transform from open war to a drawn-out insurgency, something France and international community should avoid at all costs. What actions must peacekeepers take in order to end the war, preserve a fragile Malian state, and avoid another Afghanistan?
1. Mind your neighbor
During the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, U.S. forces removed the Taliban from power in a matter of weeks. What they didn’t anticipate was a rapid withdrawal of the Taliban into the mountainous region on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As the war progressed, insurgents transferred more and more of their operations to the poorly regulated Pakistan side, where they could plan and launch guerrilla attacks with impunity. There are reports that the Islamist rebels in Mali are using the same tactics, withdrawing from conflict areas and establishing bases near the borders with Niger, Algeria, and Mauritania. France, the United States, and the United Nations must acknowledge the crucial role these countries play by helping them strengthen the security of their borders and increase their economic and political stability. This will prevent Islamic rebels from using other countries as staging grounds for their attacks and ensure that the Malian conflict doesn’t cause region-wide instability.
2. Address Human Rights Violations
As with any foreign intervention, France must pay close attention to the needs and problems of the local population. Lately, various watchdog organizations have reported a spate of human rights violations being committed by both Malian soldiers and Islamist rebels, including the execution of innocent civilians, the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and violence against women and girls. These abuses seriously damage the morale of the local population and generate negative sentiment toward both armies, including French and international forces. If the French continue to support a Malian national army that commits grave injustices against civilians, they are at risk of being viewed locally as hostile occupiers rather than peacekeepers. Responding to human rights violations committed by the Malian army and remaining committed to protecting the local population will go a long way in winning the support of Mali’s people, a critical step if a long-term insurgency is to be prevented.
3. Strengthen local capacity to fight
The most important step that must be taken in this conflict is to give African forces the power to defend themselves on their own rather than relying on the international community for help. In the short term, the international community should devote resources specifically to the proper training of Malian troops so they can defend themselves from rebel attack without international support. They should also help solidify the role that regional alliances play in this conflict and in future economic or security problems that may occur. In particular, continued backing should be given to the Economic Community of West-African States (ECOWAS), which has already expressed willingness to commit troops to the conflict. Supporting ECOWAS is an important stage in promoting regional strength and cooperation while allowing Africans the chance to shape their own destiny, without repeated interventions from the West.