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Mali mission winding down .. then what?

Bystanders stand by a French APC as a French Puma transport helicopter lands to test the field in the center of Niono, some 400 kms (300 miles) North of Mali's capital, Bamako, on Jan. 20, 2013. JEROME DELAY /ASSOCIATED PRESS

France's Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Drian, told France 2 television Wednesday that French troops will start pulling out of Mali within "a matter of weeks," despite continued clashes with rebels and members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

This is not unexpected news, although the number of troops leaving Mali is unclear. The New York Times' Steven Erlanger writes in his Tuesday profile of Drian that the minister does not want a repeat of Libya, where a weak regional government was unable to control the chaos that followed the withdrawal of international troops. An excerpt from the Times:

(T)he French are also waiting for European Union military trainers to help restore the broken Malian Army, a mission approved by Brussels only on Monday, and the collapsed state itself must be rebuilt. Part of that process must be a negotiated reconciliation between Bamako and Tuareg nationalists who had sided with the Islamists and must agree to give up their demand for independence in return for an undefined autonomy or federal state.

All this will take many months and require stability, Mr. Le Drian concedes, and while the French express hope that African forces will pursue the Islamists into the mountains and deserts of the vast north, it is highly likely that French special forces will have to continue to operate on their own and alongside the Africans, with the help of American surveillance drones.

As for Canada's involvement - litte is known, aside from the C-17 cargo plane on loan and an undefined special forces mission. As Toronto Star columnist Tom Walkom laments, "Mali is the war no one wants to talk about"   in Ottawa. 

But for those who have followed Mali for years or tracked the fight against Al Qaeda's various franchises elsewhere, the question is not what happens in the next few weeks, or even months, but what's the longterm plan?  

History has taught us that military might alone cannot completely vanquish Al Qaeda's groups. Although each organization is unique, and heavily influenced by domestic conflicts and government corruption, the groups all share one trait - patience.

They are also getting more adept at pooling resources - as witnessed recently in Somalia and Yemen where fighters, weapons and trainers are moving across the Gulf of Aden. This is one of the fears for Mali and the greater Sahel region. But again, stopping this would take a nuanced, long-term approach, which is often complicated by so-called "war on terror" panic, as explained by political analyst Imad Mesdoua in the Guardian, where he writes:

Mali's challenges require a multi-dimensional approach, which looks beyond simplistic interventionist agendas. The real roots of the current crisis have been overshadowed by the dominant "war on terror" narrative presented in the media. Beyond the restoration of order and some form of stability, Mali requires responsible and legitimate leadership capable of negotiating long term political solutions. 

For a different take on what the international role in Mali should be, read Aidan Hartley, the Nairobi-born author and The Spectator's "Wild Life" columnist (if you're unfamiliar with Hartley, take a second to first read Toby Young's very entertaining column about visiting Hartley in his remote Kenya farm house. Think - an African Hunter. S. Thompson - minus the cocaine at breakfast). He suggests Mali, and African nations in general, need less intervention, more investment. He says victory will come the day Kentucky Fried Chicken sets up shop in Timbuktu and Mogadishu.

There is little doubt that if Mali's fundamental problems are not addressed - poverty and resentment in the north, a corrupt and ill-equipped military, and a weak government - AQIM will simply retreat until the time is right to re-emerge.

None of these issues, of course, will be solved in a matter of weeks.

(* For more photos from Mali like the one above, recommend this Time Lightbox photo essay and blog by Jerome Delay, the Africa Chief photographer for the Associated Press, who explains what it's like to cover Mali's "Invisible War" : http://lightbox.time.com/2013/02/19/jerome-delay-photographing-malis-invisible-war/#ixzz2LS493CXt)


Michelle Shephard is the Toronto Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recepient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm


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