On October 24 top-level American and French military leaders and diplomats, including US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and U.S. Army Major General Charles Hooper of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) wrapped up two days of talks in Paris on intelligence gathering and security. Visiting the French General Staff plans and operations center was part of the event. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and UN officials joined the meeting too. They were extremely restrained in public comments on their activities. This time Paris welcomed those who came to discuss an issue of extreme and urgent importance – the situation in the Sahel region of Africa… The Muslim fundamentalists have full control of the northern part of Mali. If the African country is disintegrated and turns into a safe haven for terrorists of all kinds, then the whole Sahel region could be caught up in events since borders are not clearly defined and terrorist organizations can freely operate over a wide area. Only one border separates Mali from the Mediterranean so the development of events could pose a great and direct threat to European security. An international plan is being finalized to help Mali’s weak interim government oust the Islamist groups, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, that in fact have become the rulers of almost two thirds of the country’s territory following chaos prompted by a military coup in March. For the last six months they have imposed a nightmare of public tortures, acts of cruelty rarely heard of before on the helpless local population. Unmarried pregnant women are punished, enforced marriages are carried out, children are being recruited to plant improvised explosive devices making more than 300,000 people flee the region in awe and despair.
Following the requests from both the Mali government and ECOWAS for foreign military intervention, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed the resolution 2071 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (permitting the use of force) submitted by France approving an African-led force to assist Mali in combatting the Islamist militants. The resolution gave 45 days for «detailed and actionable recommendations» for military intervention to be drafted by ECOWAS and the African Union. While authorizing the planning of force and dedicating UN resources for the planning it does not authorize the actual deployment of force. The second resolution is expected to see light before the end of the year after studying the report. Russia voted for the resolution. Its position was stated in detail by Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs special statement on October 15. It says, «Russia is seriously concerned about what is happening in the north of Mali, and generally in the Sahel region, where terrorist activity is becoming more far-reaching and long-term threat for the stability of a large part of the African continent. We approve of the efforts of ECOWAS and Mali with the participation of the UN Secretary General, the regional states and other interested members of the international community of development of the detailed plan of action on restoring of the stability, constitutional order and territorial integrity of the Malian state». Russia has rich experience in African peacekeeping contributing in the operations in Angola, Chad, Sierra-Leone. At present, the military formation of the Russian peacekeepers is part of UN international force in Sudan.
«There is no alternative», said Jack Christofides, a top official in the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which is playing a leading role in planning a possible operation. «For some of these more radical groups’ occupying northern Mali, he added, ‘it’s going to take military force». A week later African leaders met in Bamako, the Mali's capital, to prepare a plan for a military intervention. The meeting saw increasingly belligerent rhetoric as foreign powers agreed on the urgency of military action in the country. "The Malian people rely on us to take determined and efficient action, and we must be up to their hopes and expectations," UN deputy secretary general, Jan Elias Eliasson, said. A team of EU military and civilian experts came to Bamako on October 22. Their mission is to conduct analysis and define what is needed for the operation. On November 19 the European Union’s defense chiefs are to take the decision on the deployment of EU mission in the country the way it is done in Somali at present.
The French newspaper Le Monde says the operation should be launched before the rainy season in the spring. It is to start with the concentration of forces around Bamako in January next year. By that time Mali’s a three – four battalion strong ground force will become combat ready. With the international support they’ll take over the Tambuktu – Gao region stabilizing the north in March. Air strikes and special operation forces are to play an important role. The idea would be intervention in northern Mali through a series of concerted operations by Malian government troops, an ECOWAS or, possibly, a broader African Union joint contingent and a French-led Western force limited by support role to fill remaining gaps. The US will be responsible for intelligence. The United States has no full-time military presence in Africa but it sends instructors and advisers on specific missions. It also operates unmanned aerial vehicles and has special operations capability. The AFRICOM, the Unified Combatant Command for Africa based in Stuttgart, Germany, is responsible for U.S. military operations and military relations with 53 African nations – an area of responsibility covering all of the continent except Egypt.
The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador, has given an impetus to increasing American awareness of the terror threat in the Sahel. Other Western powers are increasingly worried about the tumult in Mali too. On October 23 Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany would be prepared to take part in a European mission to train and provide logistical support for Malian security forces. European Union members are considering a noncombat training mission to help the interim Malian government.
No doubt France is a leading nation to support the action. It has airpower and hundreds of troops deployed in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Chad and Gabon. Six French citizens are held as hostages in Mali. France and the United Nations insist any invasion of Mali's north must be led by African troops. Many in the West fear that northeast Mali and the arid Sahel could become a new Afghanistan, a no-man's-land where extremists are free to prepare their evil plans. As a former colonial ruler of countries across the region France is a prime target. "This is actually a major threat — to French interests in the region, and to France itself," said Francois Heisbourg, an expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a partially state-funded think tank in Paris. "This is like Afghanistan 1996. This is like when Bin Laden found a place that was larger than France in which he could organize training camps, in which he could provide stable preparations for organizing far-flung terror attacks." Jean Felix-Paganon, Paris's special envoy for the Sahel, told on October 22 that France has resumed military cooperation with Mali and send instructors there. A French defense official said on October 22 France plans to move two surveillance drones to western Africa from Afghanistan by year-end. It is reported to have SOF (special operation forces) units in the region around Mali. The country is turning its attention to the Sahel just as it is accelerating its pullout of combat troops from Afghanistan ahead of other NATO allies.
France is also determined to prevent more kidnappings across Africa where thousands of French expatriates live under the growing threat of terrorism. The French authorities have long been concerned that home-grown Islamic militants could get training abroad, then come back to France to sow terror. At a meeting on the Sahel at the United Nations last month, French President Hollande called for an African-led military intervention in Mali "as quickly as possible." But since then, he has reiterated that France won't provide any ground troops. His government has pledged logistical support, training, and intelligence-gathering to help back up African forces.
The total estimated strength of intervention force is 7-10 thousand, a goal hard to reach. The ECOWAS is training 3 thousand troops. Its leadership is calling on Algiers, Mauritania, Chad and Nigeria to join. No final decision is taken by the governments of these states. Nigeria, with the largest army in West Africa, is tied up with a fight against its own Islamist radicals. Algeria, the most efficient force in the region, has been so far reluctant to get involved. The governments of Niger, Burkina Faso and Togo have all agreed to contribute. Côte d'Ivoire's President Alassane Ouattara as new Chairman of ECOWSAS is the titular leader of the intervention, but he faces a new insurgency at home from forces loyal to ousted President Laurent Gbagbo. Reports that Gbagbo's forces may be teaming up with dissident Malian fighters and jihadist groups may have increased his determination to intervene. Ghana is preparing for elections on December 7 and Senegal's President Macky Sall says his army is overstretched. Mauritania's military is in crisis, after the purportedly accidental shooting of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
The operation will not be plain sailing. Harsh geography and weather, the Islamists’ guerrilla tactics are all complicating factors. There are thousands jihadists already on the way to help the brothers in arms from the Western Sahara, Sudan and areas adjacent to the Algiers’ border. It’s going to be a tough fight. An intervention over a desert region the size of France will require formidable logistics and airpower. As the history shows involvement into military conflict often happens involuntarily as the situation creeps according to scenarios nobody can predict. Take the US involvement into the Vietnam war for example. Look at how the US got bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan to name very few of numerous lessons from history. As Stephen O’Brien, U.K. special representative to the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa, said Britain was «in a position where one of the things we could contemplate offering is training of various kinds. At this stage, I’m not going in with a closed mind to rule anything out. We will do our best to play our part. I haven’t ruled anything out».
The situation is caused by NATO disrespect for international law. Going far beyond the UN resolution in Libya, NATO air power was used not to protect civilians, as the document stated it should have done, but to help the opposition forces to topple the Muammar Gaddafi regime. The influx of Tuaregs and then the Muslim fundamentalist groups into Mali followed as a result. We all know the rest of the story. Mali plunged into chaos in March after a military ruler overthrew the president. Ethnic Tuareg rebels and Islamist militants took advantage of the situation to seize the northern portion of the country. Months later, two groups of Islamic fundamentalists with ties to al Qaeda toppled the Tuareg movement. Now they now control two-thirds of northern Mali. So the situation in the Sahel region is a spillover from the intervention in Libya and the following mess. Now it’s time to pay the price. Mali is a lesson to learn. It’s important for NATO nations to draw conclusions from the mistakes of the recent past and stop inciting turmoil in the region, especially going around international law. So far the United Nations resolution stresses ECOWAS and the African Union are the ones to do the fighting unless authorized otherwise. Of course UN members are welcome to provide support. But providing support is a very much different thing from waging real combat. No NATO or European Union operation has been mentioned by the United Nations so far. Going beyond the resolution will destitute the operation of legitimacy. That’s what should be remembered looking back at what happened in much-suffering Libya.
Foto: RIA Novosti