The current crisis in Mali came largely as a shock to the international community. Yet, with the conflict having gone from local insurgency to full scale war and back, plenty of analyses have begun to formulate an early consensus among analysts: the conflict, it is argued, is a direct result of the 2011 civil war in Libya and NATO’s intervention there.
Mali, furthermore, is often seem as evidence that the Sahel is emerging as the new front-line in the war on terror and that the United States’ counter-terrorism programmes do not work as envisioned, while civil-military relations in Western Africa are still in desperate need of overhaul. But does this early consensus adequately reflect the conflict and its causes?
It ain’t Libya
While it is true that the conflict was fostered by the instability that spilled over from Libya to neighbouring countries, it would be misleading to suggest—as some commentators have—that it was triggered by the NATO intervention in Libya. The influx of small arms and light weapons that were suddenly abounding and the return of Tuareg fighters to Mali that had fought to keep Gaddafi’s regime in power all accelerated the conflict. Yet, the conflict itself was a long simmering one.
In fact, the crisis in Mali might not have erupted, had the political institutions of Mali been functioning and the integration of the North after previous rebellions been successful. Though the country had a reputation as a by-and-large successful democracy, the country’s institutions have eroded over much of the past decade. Moreover, overall confidence in the ability of the government of President Amadou Tounami Touré to address the major challenges of the country dropped rapidly, a deficiency fuelled by the overly self-centred governance style of Touré. The failure of parliament and political parties to establish themselves as counterweights were ultimately responsible for a loss of trust among the general population in the political institutions. This lack of confidence was not confined to the populace, but began to take hold in the military as well.
When the country became a democracy in 1992, it also formulated the Pacte Nationale, which marked the first attempt of the government to put the Tuareg rebellion to rest for good by outlining a largely decentralised government structure. The progress made in the early 1990s was put into jeopardy in 2006, when fresh skirmishes threatened the peace process. Though the 2006 rebellion was ended through a new negotiated settlement, the peace process was permanently derailed that year. Grievances fuelled by continuing droughts, a lack of economic development, and a feeling of marginalisation in the political process could not be overcome. Integration of the Tuareg in the overall government and bureaucracy proved too little to alleviate these grievances. The narrative that Libya was the ultimate trigger to the most severe crisis the Southern Sahel has seen in years is simply misleading.
Is the Sahel the next frontline in the war on terror?
While the crisis in Mali is often wrongly seen as a result of the civil war in Libya, it is also being regarded as an indicator that the Sahel itself is emerging as a new frontline in the war on terror.
But is the situation in Mali really a good indicator of a resurgent terrorist threat in the Sahel? Media reports, after all, are full with assertions that North Africa in general and the Sahel in particular will evolve into the pivotal security challenge over the coming years, replacing the Central Asian battlefields. Ansar ad-Dine is a relative recent addition to the complex scenery in Northern Mali, founded presumably in late 2011 by Iyad Ag Ghali. Though Ansar ad-Dine could score early successes in its offensive against the Malian armed forces, its ranks were filled to a large extent by fighters of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), due largely to the fact that Ag Ghali’s cousin Hamada Ag Hama is a high-ranking commander in Northern African branch of al Qaeda. Though such personal connections might be found on many levels, it is quite a stretch to argue that these bonds equal a consolidated coalition of interests and actors, guarantee a cohesive agenda, or allow unity of effort. In contrast to AQIM, Ansar ad-Dine leaders were open to peace initiatives brokered by Algeria and Burkina Faso. Though these eventually faltered, they are a reminder that this is hardly a consolidated and determined enemy.
Finally, it is important to remember that AQIM is itself an off-shot of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) that waged a bloody civil war against the Algerian authorities during the 1990s and suffered a thorough defeat. It evolved into AQIM, but only because it failed to achieve its objectives in Algeria. Its modus operandi ever since has been markedly different from other al Qaeda branches. It relied heavily on kidnappings of Western tourists and narcotics trade. This different approach was not the result of a deliberate strategy on behalf of al Qaeda, but a reflection of its strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses. Its advances in Mali might look impressive and they certainly constitute an enemy to be taken seriously. Their gains in Mali, however, are not so much the result of its own strength but of the weakness of the Malian army. So, if the Mali army is too weak to face as weak an adversary as AQIM, why did counter-terrorism training programmes fail to make a difference?
Did Counter-terrorism Support Fail?
With AQIM coming as close to a regional foothold as its been since it first emerged on the geostrategic scene, it is important to ask whether the long-running counter-terrorism training missions in the Sahel have worked. After all, such accomplishments by a terrorist organisation should raise questions about whether Western policies vis-à-vis the Sahel were heading in the right direction. Moreover, after French and government forces began to retake the North, government soldiers were accused of serious abuses and retaliatory crimes, indicating that the esprit de corps is not as resilient as Western allies had hoped. General Carter Ham of U.S. Africa Command admitted as much, arguing that the training mission had failed to train Malian troops on values and military ethos, focusing too much on military skills of soldiers.
It is no wonder, hence, that many commentators are wondering how training programmes such as the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership could have failed to prepare the army of Mali for a battle such as this. However, just because one of the adversaries is called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb does not mean that the challenge itself was of a terrorist nature. With a loose coalition wrangling control of half of the country from the government, the nature of the challenge was, at least in the beginning, a conventional military one. With the French military handing over control to the armed forces of Mali and possibly a United Nations force, it might well evolve into a counterinsurgency one, but it certainly is not a counter-terrorist one.
The real question is whether training missions focusing on counter-terrorism capabilities come at the expense of conventional military capabilities? That is difficult to ascertain, since the Mali army never had any meaningful military capabilities to begin with. Morale of the armed forces was in shambles for many years; pay remains low, and equipment is either non-existent or not operational. Training missions can only go so far in correcting these deficiencies. What they really require is a government not neglecting these capabilities.
A Failure of Civilian Control?
Against the background of a faltering war effort in Northern Mali, Captain Amadou Sanogo staged a coup d’etat against the democratically elected government in Bamako at the end of March 2012. The lacklustre performance of the armed forces against determined enemies in the north of the country and the readiness with which a captain had toppled the government had commentators quickly pointing to largely failed Western training and assistance missions in Mali. It looked like the militaries of Western African nations still have trouble resisting the praetorian temptation, to grab power with the barrel of a gun.
It is, however, misleading to interpret the coup of March 2012 as a reminder of the era of coups in the 1960s and 1970s, when such regime changes were so rampant in Western Africa that the likelihood for a head of state of being ousted by the military was larger than that of being replaced peacefully by democratic or other means of succession. During the Cold War, civilian supremacy was poorly institutionalized, and coups were often planned by senior military officers. In contrast, most coup attempts of the past decade and a half were staged by junior officers and NCOs. Such coups are usually poorly planned, poorly executed, hardly ever have the support of the entire military, and will in all probability fail dismally. After all, which senior officer is willing to execute orders on behalf of a junior officer or NCO, who in all likelihood was under his command only hours before? In academic literature these coups are often referred to as barrack revolts, since they have little in common with the carefully planned and executed coups of the past. And even if the perpetrators manage to grab power immediately, they face much more daunting challenges in trying to cling to reigns of power and hence have more in common with mutineers.
While it is true that the coup in Mali was nothing less than a breakdown in the civilian control of the military, it was by no means another example of generals wilfully grabbing power. Civilian supremacy is today a norm well established throughout much of Western Africa. Most senior and general staff officers unequivocally support civilian control of the military. Differences, however, emerge when they are being pressed on the precise extent of civilian supremacy. While it is a well-established norm that orders are only being accepted from the head of state or the cabinet minister in charge, civilian oversight executed by parliament is quite a different matter. This is only partly the militaries’ fault. Most parliamentarians in Western Africa are far less educated than their military counterparts they are supposed to control, and they often have only a vague understanding of their power and responsibilities. And when it comes to the military itself, security sector reform missions need to concentrate more on junior officers and NCOs and try instilling a sense of civilian supremacy at these lower levels as well. When addressing the situation in Mali and working to prevent future crises along similar lines, it is worthwhile paying attention to such details.
All Politics is Local
The real failure in Western policy approaches to Mali is not to be found in training missions focused on counter-terrorism capabilities or a failure in educational programmes for African militaries in civilian oversight. The truth is that while these programmes can be improved upon and made more comprehensive, the crisis in Mali was simmering for many years, simply because most previous peace agreements with the local Tuareg broke down. These breakdowns were not inevitable—they were the result of the international community shifting its attention elsewhere, whenever agreements between the government in Bamako and the Tuareg rebels were reached. And with adequate attention lacking, there were never enough resources available to successfully implement the brokered peace agreements, which in turn fuelled fresh grievances. It is this failure in implementation that created the space that AQIM was ready to exploit. The emerging narrative on the conflict in Mali is driven by largely superficial analyses, overrates the importance, resilience and cohesiveness of radical Islamists, and feeds perception on African politics that are—at least in this case—misleading. In hoping to resolve the current crisis and preventing future ones, paying a closer look is indeed helpful.
Dustin Dehéz is a member of the Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group and is senior analyst with the Global Governance Institute (GGI), where he focuses on peace and security issues. This material was originally published in Diplomatic Courier magazine. Republished with permission. Copyright 2006-2012 The Diplomatic Courier(tm). All rights reserved.
Photo credit: US Air Force Capt. Jason Smith