The Whiff of Conflict Grows in Mali

The Whiff of Conflict Grows in Mali


New York Times, 23 October 2012

BAMAKO, Mali — A military strike to recapture Mali’s Islamist-held north is growing more likely, according to Western powers, regional bodies and the United Nations — a pronounced shift after months of hesitation and hopes that negotiations might end what is now seen as a far-reaching jihadist threat.

In recent weeks, for the first time, a broad-based international consensus has formed that war could soon be waged in the vast desert and savanna of northern Mali, an area roughly the size of France. Planning for such an operation remains embryonic. Who would take part? When would it occur? Who would command it?

These basic details have yet to be worked out, officials conceded. Yet they emphasized that previously reluctant partners, including Mali itself, were convinced of the military imperative after months of inconclusive meetings and discussions. On Oct. 12, the United Nations Security Council, led by France, passed a resolution declaring its “readiness” to respond to Malian demands for an international force and asked that a detailed plan be submitted in 45 days. That resolve was reiterated at an international summit here last week.

“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.”

As many as 7,000 to 10,000 soldiers may be needed to take back and hold the north, United Nations officials have said, and the barriers to compiling such a force are evident. Nigeria, with the largest army in West Africa, is tied up with a fight against its own Islamist radicals. Algeria, often considered to have easily the most efficient force in the region, has been reluctant to get involved, though it may be coming around, officials said.

France, plagued by kidnappings of its citizens (about half a dozen are being held) and fearful of a radical enclave so close to the Mediterranean, has been the most vocal about kicking out the Islamists. On Monday, its special representative to the region, Jean Felix-Paganon, said that France had resumed its military aid to Mali, and a defense expert briefed by the French government said it would send intelligence drones to West Africa by the end of the year to help intervention efforts.

But France, like the United States, has ruled out sending its own troops into the fray.

Harsh geography and weather, and the Islamists’ guerrilla tactics, are also complicating factors. “We shouldn’t be optimistic that this is going to be a one- or two-week surgical strike, and then we go home,” Mr. Christofides said. “The biggest issue is money because this is not going be cheap,” he added.

Yet the objective is clear: to eradicate the repressive regime in the north — made up of a loose triumvirate of radical Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Qaeda regional affiliate — that for the last six months has imposed a nightmare of public whippings, beatings, amputations and stonings on a helpless local population. The Islamists have drawn up ominous lists of unmarried pregnant women to be punished, the United Nations said; enforced marriages are being carried out; and children are being recruited to plant improvised explosive devices.

More than 300,000 people have fled the region, and the menace is being portrayed as one that spreads well beyond Mali’s borders, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calling northern Mali “a larger safe haven” that could allow terrorists “to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”

The Islamists controlling Gao and Timbuktu, the principal towns in northern Mali, appear to be preparing for war, according to residents there. “They’re camouflaging their vehicles,” said Issa Maïga, a journalist in Gao. “They are in a bit of a panic,” he said. “They are afraid.”

Small detachments of new fighters, perhaps from outside Mali, have been observed in both towns. In Timbuktu, Cissé Agaly, a former hotel manager, said 37 new fighters had arrived over the weekend. “We saw them walking in the market,” he said, adding that they appeared to be from Western Sahara.

Similarly, a municipal councilor in Gao, Abderahmane Oumarou Maïga, said about 60 new fighters had arrived in the town, also from Western Sahara and the border regions of Algeria. In addition, witnesses in both towns spoke of incessant aircraft overhead — apparently surveillance planes, though the witnesses said they were flying too high to be identified. “Every day, days and nights,” said Mr. Maïga, the journalist in Gao.

The United States has periodically flown Global Hawk surveillance drones and some reconnaissance planes over northern Mali and the wider Sahel region, but has so far limited Predator surveillance drones to missions in nearby Libya. State Department officials have expressed strong reservations about introducing armed drones in any missions in Mali.

Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, is meeting French officials in Paris this week. He has said that military action to drive out the Islamic extremists was inevitable, but that any operations had to have Malian soldiers leading forces from West Africa, all following a carefully organized plan.

“There will have to be, at some point, military action,” Mr. Carson said this month.

The Islamists seized control of the long-unstable north in the wake of a coup d’état here in the capital in March. The Malian Army collapsed after the coup, fleeing the principal cities of the north in the wake of the rebel advance, and power in Bamako has since been uneasily shared by weak civilian leaders and the military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses.

For months this shotgun marriage, each side jockeying for power in the capital, distracted the nation from either taking back the lost north itself or inviting outside help to do so. As alarm beyond Mali has grown, though, the divided authorities here have come under pressure to accept assistance, initially regarded as humiliating.

Finally, in mid-September Mali’s interim president sent a letter to the United Nations asking for help. The idea was still being contested by thousands of anti-intervention, nationalist demonstrators on the streets of the capital this week.

But in the last two weeks, the tide elsewhere has turned decisively in favor of an international military expedition, incorporating what remains of the shattered Malian army, to end the Islamist takeover in the north. Adding urgency, the Islamists have established training camps in northern Mali towns, adding to existing Islamist bases in the desert, and children have been observed engaging in rifle training at these establishments, according to Human Rights Watch. “We must act to end this,” the United Nations deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, said at the summit meeting here last week.

Still, nothing like a road map for the deployment of troops came out of the meeting. American officials said they would consider a request for support once a plan was in place.

Many military difficulties are associated with the group of West African states, known as Ecowas, which has been among the most consistent in advocating a military resolution. The group’s representative at the summit, the foreign minister of Ivory Coast, Daniel Kablan Duncan, suggested that it would need help in mustering troops from two neighboring, nonmember countries, Algeria and Mauritania.

“Mauritania and Algeria must involve themselves more fully,” he told the delegates. “And why not our brothers from Chad?” he added, citing another non-Ecowas country.

Even more fundamentally, the Malian army, which would be assigned a central role in any intervention, has serious problems, officials said. It has been “depleted quite substantially,” said Mr. Christofides, adding, “They might have lost as much as half of their matériel.”

A Western military attaché here said Malian officers had even sold equipment that they were issued and claimed more men under their command than they actually had in order to pocket extra salaries.

Moreover, the same army abandoned the northern towns to the Islamists in early April with barely a fight. “What’s happened to them?” the Western defense attaché asked. “They left a country divided in half. In some countries that would be high treason.”

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Paris, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.