A Brand New War: Western Forces Square Off Against Islamists In Africa

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French Troops in Mali
French soldiers walk past a hangar they are staying at the Malian army air base in Bamako.

Over the past decade, the Western world has grown weary of drawn-out wars against insurgents in far-off places. Almost 10 years have passed since a coalition led by the United States and the United Kingdom stormed into Iraq; American troops did not end their combat mission until 2010. It has been more than 11 years since NATO forces first rolled into Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of soldiers still remain.

But that hasn’t stopped a new offensive from kicking off late last week in the poverty-stricken West African country of Mali. France is leading the charge, and officials have predicted a quick end to the mission; Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said the operation would last only a matter of weeks.

But this is no simple operation. France, Mali's former colonizer, has already garnered promises of support -- however vague -- from several Western powers. As for the insurgents, they comprise various groups with differing aims. The web of alliances among them is ever-shifting.

Some of the rebels in northern Mali -- who last week alarmed the international community by advancing farther south than ever before, toward the capital city of Bamako -- have threatened to retaliate against French troops and civilians in the wake of the intervention, making it clear that this new conflict could have far-ranging implications.

Miserable Months

Despite endemic poverty and underdevelopment, Mali had been a beacon of stable African democracy since 1992. That changed in March of last year, when a band of soldiers stormed into Bamako and took over the civilian government in a widely condemned military coup.

The mutinous soldiers were reacting to a crisis that had begun two months earlier; in January, insurgents had begun taking over various northern communities. The invaders were Tuaregs, a nomadic people that hailed from the Sahel, the band of semi-arid land across Africa just south of the Sahara Desert.

The Tuaregs had long sought an independent state of their own, and were strengthened by their mercenary work for the doomed Moammar Gadhafi during the Libyan revolution. Though they lost that battle, the Tuaregs gained an impressive cache of weapons, which enabled them to overrun Malian forces in early 2012 as they advanced into the sparsely populated northern region.

Above all else, the Tuaregs sought to establish a state of their own, called Azawad. The insurgent group calls itself the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA by the French acronym.

Their success didn’t last long. The Tuaregs were usurped by Islamist militants who also came from the Sahel; their overarching goal was impose Shariah, or Islamic law, on Malian communities. Those Islamists, who still occupy the region, are themselves split into several factions.

A Country Divided

“You’ve got three groups operating in Mali at the moment that can be classified as Islamist, and this is in addition to the MNLA, which is basically secular,” says Andrew McGregor, a senior editor at the Jamestown Foundation Global Terrorism Analysis Program in Washington, D.C.

One group, called Ansar Dine, has some ethnic links with Tuareg rebels although its aims are largely Islamist. The group has indicated a willingness to negotiate with Bamako in the past, but reversed course in recent weeks and is now the most powerful insurgent force in the country.

“Then you have the Movement for Openness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJWA, which is largely black African in composition although the leadership is mainly Arab and Mauritanian,” says McGregor. “They’re in a somewhat weakened state at the moment; they recently suffered a mass defection of their troops to Ansar Dine.”

The third group is al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. This decades-old movement, which is rooted in Algeria, was once only a marginal al-Qaeda affiliate but has gained more power in recent months by linking up with other Islamist movements in the region, and by using abductions and drug smuggling to beef up its income.

All of these groups are weakened by their sporadic conflicts with each other, but Western powers are concerned since northern Mali -- which is roughly the size of France -- has become a haven and training ground for Islamist militant groups and terrorists linked to al-Qaeda.

Far from Home

Domestically, the situation is grim; Malian civilians in far-flung northern regions have suffered greatly under the reign of extremists, whose harsh interpretation of Shariah is a far cry from the more moderate version of Islam practiced in the country.

That humanitarian crisis has been the focus of scrutiny in recent months, with Western powers including the United States keen to prevent further destabilization but wary of a risky intervention.

The issue was brought before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in early December. Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, was among the panelists. There, she laid out in dire terms the extent of humanitarian crisis in northern Mali.

Still today, she says, the situation is extreme.

“Civilians from the north have suffered tremendously on account of the armed conflict that erupted a year ago, first at the hands of Tuareg separatists and later on account of the various forms of abuse meted out by the Islamist groups,” says Dufka.

“Those abuses include beatings amputations, executions, destruction of cultural heritage sites and serious restrictions on their way of life. It has provoked the flight of hundreds of thousands of people, both refugees and internally displaced persons.”

Going Down

The international response to this crisis has been a protracted one. The fractured Malian army has so far proven incapable of facing the rebels in battle, so a coalition of forces under the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, committed itself to formulating a plan to defend Bamako.

It wasn’t until December that the United Nations Security Council approved a rough plan for ECOWAS troops to intervene -- and even then, the force was not expected to coalesce into a deployment until the autumn of 2013.

But the situation became more urgent last week, when Islamists began heading down south with unprecedented speed. On Wednesday, Ansar Dine militants rolled into the town of Konna, in central Mali. Militants then headed further south toward Mopti, which sits on the de facto dividing line between northern and southern Mali.

Suddenly, French forces swooped in with air strikes. It was an unexpected intervention that seemed to sidestep months of careful planning on the part of the U.N. and African forces, but the French say the move was necessary in light of recent insurgent advances.

The conflict has been raging since the intervention began on Friday. 

Stephanie Pezard, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a think-tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., notes that it is still too early to tell exactly what French forces have in mind.

“In terms of French capabilities, what they’re going to deploy on the ground will be dependent on how they find the Islamist response to be,” she says. “It remains to be seen what exactly the French mission is to accomplish -- whether it’s containing the Islamist insurgents’ spread or retaking northern territory.”

Early reports are less than encouraging. Although French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian voiced optimism about the intervention on Monday, he also revealed that Islamists had overtaken the central town of Diabaly, which is west of Mopti and about 240 miles north of Bamako. It is the closest yet that Islamist insurgents have gotten to Mali’s capital city.

We're All In

Now, the question is whether other Western countries are willing to back up the French forces. So far, none have promised to send combat troops. But Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States have all pledged logistical support.

The United States has kept officially mum about the specifics regarding its plans for supporting the French.

“We stand by our French allies and they can count on U.S. support,” said Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, a spokesman for the Department of Defense. “I won't get into the specific nature of our support. As Secretary [Leon] Panetta has said, we share France's concern in Mali and we will support the French and international community in the effort to counter the terrorist threat there.”

Analysts posit that the U.S. contribution to France’s offensive might involve drone surveillance and crafts for aerial refueling.

As evidenced by their seizure of Diabaly on Monday, the Malian insurgents -- fractured though they are -- may be quite capable of putting up a fight.

“They managed to get a hold of some really good equipment when Libya fell apart,” says McGregor. “On top of that, they seized everything the Malian army left behind [while retreating southward]. They have some decent anti-aircraft pieces."

On the other hand, he adds, “The insurgents are going to suffer from their own lack of air cover. And given the open spaces in the terrain in that region, this will present real difficulties for them in the fight against modern Western military forces.”

The End Game

News of France’s surprise intervention last week sparked immediate debates as to whether France was asserting itself too forcefully into the affairs of Mali, its former colony.

French officials point out that the Malian government has asked for assistance, noting that the insurgency has brought much suffering to the people of northern communities and disrupted the path back to stability in Bamako.

“There’s probably a lot of support for the French right now among northern residents,” says Dufka of HRW. “Their lives have been extremely difficult [under the insurgency].”

But the Islamists themselves have reacted angrily to the presence of French troops, vowing to exact vengeance on the European power -- and the West in general. One spokesman for Ansar Dine told the Associated Press that “this war has become a war against the Crusaders.” France, meanwhile, has raised its domestic terror threat level.

But Pezard of the RAND Corporation notes that terrorist threats against Western powers are nothing new.

“It’s been going on for months, the threat that France was going to be hit on its own territory. There have already been hostages that have constrained France’s action, so I don’t think the situation has changed drastically now that there is an intervention.”

At least six hostages are currently being held by AQIM militants, as was the case before the Mali offensive.

Furthermore, the West is not the only one rushing into Mali. ECOWAS has accelerated its plans, with the current chairman of the organization, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, releasing a statement “deciding to authorize the immediate sending of troops on the ground.” Nigerian and Senegalese troops were among the first arrivals in Mali early this week; more are expected to trickle in as the conflict rages on.

Ouattara has also thanked the French government for its quick intervention.

Generally, France’s presence in Mali has been welcomed by most regional players -- but that could change quickly if the conflict drags on.

In a situation as complicated as this one, there are no easy answers. Containing an insurgency is one thing -- achieving stability in Bamako and quashing various terrorist cells in an area as vast as northern Mali is quite another.

For Malians, there is cause for hope that a yearlong domestic crisis will soon reach an end. But there is also a great risk that this sudden Western offensive could be just the beginning of another protracted international conflict.

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