Following France’s large-scale military intervention in Mali in January 2013, referred to in the Western media as the «operation to save Mali from Islamists» (1) and shown on television almost in real time, there has been virtual silence about the situation in this African country. French President François Hollande’s optimistic opinion that everything would be over in a matter of weeks was replaced by talk of a few months, and then the expression «as long as necessary». Now, deadlines for the withdrawal of French troops from Mali are not being talked about at all.
French troops managed to carry out several successful operations and kill a few leaders of Islamist groups, but, on the whole, not a single group has been defeated. On the contrary, what is happening in Mali today suggests that the strength of the Islamists has not been undermined; they are capable of carrying out serious military operations and gain the upper hand.
It seems Paris planned this exact course of events. On the one hand, France has established a reputation for itself as the ‘saviour’ of Mali (the curious offensive by Islamists in the country’s capital in January 2013 was stopped), while on the other, the conflict needs to be long and viscous so as to justify a permanent French presence in Mali. French troops have no plans to leave the country, while NGOs report that the situation «remains troubled». The formula is well known…
In the middle of May 2014, following a relative lull, the situation deteriorated sharply. Over the course of a week, battles took place between the Malian army and fighters from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), as well as other related groups. On 21 May, the Malian army stormed the town of Kidal (a key town to the north-east of the country) using heavy artillery, but terrorists fought off the attack and pushed back government troops who fled, suffering heavy losses. (2)
At the end of May, attacks began not just against peaceful towns and villages, but against UN peacekeeping forces. On 20 June, a bomb exploded near the town of Timbuktu, killing one peacekeeper and wounding six others. On 16 August, there was a new attack on peacekeepers in which two were killed and seven wounded.
You will recall that in April 2013, the UN set up a new peacekeeping mission in Mali. Among other things, the mission’s mandate included the stabilisation of key population centres and support for the re-establishment of state authority throughout the country, especially in the north of Mali (see UN Security Council Resolution 2100). On 25 June, the mandate of the UN operation was extended for one year (see UN Security Council Resolution 2164), and an extremely significant addition was made to the mission’s mandate: now, UN troops needed to «take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas». In other words, the troops can stay there for as long as al-Qaeda and any other terrorist groups exist, including Tuareg rebels.
The internal political situation in the country remains tense. There is no unity either within the ranks of the terrorists (3) or within government. At the beginning of April, the country’s president removed Prime Minister Oumar Tatam Ly from his post and replaced him with Moussa Mara, a controversial step to say the least considering that Mara is a member of a small opposition party. The party has just one seat in parliament, and Mara himself received 1.5 per cent of the vote in the presidential elections. However, this has not stopped Mara from changing the makeup of the government almost completely.
Incidentally, the fighting that took place in Kidal in May was provoked by the new prime minister, who had gone there for a visit. The riots that ended with the capture of soldiers from the Malian army and government officials began on the back of protest demonstrations against the visit. Several people in the town’s administration building were killed. Prime Minister Mara himself was successfully evacuated in a helicopter belonging to the UN Mission.
The humanitarian situation also remains extremely grave. Nearly three and a half million people are still at risk of what the UN classifies as «food insecurity». Almost one and a half million people are simply malnourished; experts expect that in 2-3 months, the number of malnourished will be closer to two million. There are nearly 140,000 internally displaced persons in the country, and almost 200,000 refugees beyond its borders (the population of Mali is nearly 14 million people).
All this is happening against the backdrop of attempts by the new government to conduct the trial of members of the military junta that overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré in April 2012. At long last, the leader of the military coup, Amadou Sanogo, who for a long time they were too afraid to touch despite the obvious criminality of his actions, has also been arrested. Among other things, the junta is accused of the disappearance of 25 Malian soldiers on the day of the coup. Perhaps it will be established that Sanogo’s April coup was not so bloodless after all.
The UN Mission is also facing problems. Despite the fact that it should include 11,200 military personnel and 1,400 police, by March 2014 the mission was only 55 per cent staffed. Thus for a whole year, the Organization of United Nations managed to complete just half of its mission! The reasons for this state of affairs are not being reported. However, given the unusual correlation between the actions of Islamists and the infiltration of Mali by foreign countries, this no longer seems strange. Foreign troops have gone to Mali for the long haul, and there is no use hurrying them. Especially as the mission is being financed rather generously. While the mission’s annual budget amounted to more than $600 million in 2013, in 2014 this sum was nearer $1 billion!
Operation Serval should be considered in the overall context of French policy towards its former colonies. In recent years, this policy has started to acquire increasingly rigid forms. Thus, in April 2011, French soldiers taking part in a UN peacekeeping mission carried out a military coup in the Ivory Coast and overthrew the country’s legitimate president Laurent Gbagbo, later transferring him to the International Criminal Court. (4) Unlike the situation in the Ivory Coast, the status of French troops in Mali is completely autonomous. Moreover, they received some legitimacy from the UN Security Council, which authorised French troops «to use all necessary means to intervene in support of elements of MINUSMA when under imminent and serious threat upon request of the Secretary-General». You will recall that al-Qaeda’s offensive in the capital in January 2013 took place after the decision was made to establish an inter-African military mission, which was to help the Malian army fight terrorists who at that time had been hiding in the sands of the Sahara for more than ten years and had never come out. The creation of the inter-African military mission was a clear signal that the Africans should not even try to solve their own problems themselves – they should only act through the UN, where the main role belongs to their former colonial power.