The Magazine

Hope for Mali

Go ahead and vote, but be sure to have the protection of Western airpower.

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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President Touré always was a U.S. favorite, but as a practical matter the Americans have stayed out of post-Touré Malian politics, except to periodically state our commitment to democracy. Whether this dogma, with its concomitant enthusiasm for elections, indicates the triumph of hope over experience or a cynical cover for a fundamental contempt for the Malians is probably a fair question, but also a largely irrelevant one in the short term, given the ascendancy of the military side of our policy.

The Ouagadougou Accords, at least until they break down, give France the opportunity to withdraw most of the 4,000 troops engaged in Operation Serval, entrusting security in the north to a multinational force, mainly African but with some contingents from elsewhere (including China, which reportedly is deploying a brigade of 500 or more elite commandos). The French assert, however, that they must maintain forces in Mali to pursue the al Qaeda networks in the region. The United States has supported their position, most significantly by helping them maintain and upgrade the airstrip at Tessalit, some 300 miles north of Kidal. 

From the perspective of a military strategist, Tessalit and Kidal, upon which Tessalit depends for economic sustenance, were the real objectives of the 2012 war. Control of Tessalit is needed to command the airspace over the Sahara; other possible airbases, notably in Algeria, are not available. Kidal, in turn, is the historic capital of the Azawad, the Tuareg center. Control of Kidal is needed to assert political and military authority in the Sahel, and certainly to help maintain security from Mauritania to Chad, passing by Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. 

It is not surprising that the battles for these towns were the most fiercely fought of the 2012 war. American military observers were well aware of the strategic stakes and attempted to resupply the Malian garrison in Tessalit from the air. And therefore it is not surprising, either, that the peace negotiations in Ouagadougou got stuck on the question of who would control Kidal. 

In an effort to mediate between avowedly secularist, pro-West Tuareg and the Bambara-led Malians of the south, the French have tried to maintain a standoff between the lighter-skinned MNLA forces in Kidal and the Malian forces who followed French and Chadian troops north.   The peace deal requires the MNLA to disarm, but it has cached most of its weapons. The city has been jumpy, with clashes between MNLA men and southern officials and troops. Both sides control certain neighborhoods and nominally agree to let the electoral process, followed by inter-communal negotiations, determine the future status of the area. The unstated axiom, however, is clear to all: Under no circumstances can any faction or tribal group control Kidal and Tessalit that is hostile to French (and American) airpower, for upon it depends the security of the Sahel. 

To the extent American policy maintains a low profile in Mali while holding on to a big stick—beginning with the upgrading of airpower in the region—we will arguably have demonstrated that the better part of wisdom in Africa is patience. Assuring the security of Tessalit, in coordination with French forces (to whom we are selling drones, presumably for surveillance over the Sahara), is a necessary preliminary to the political task of finding out with whom we need to work in the region. 

It may well be necessary, over time, not only to keep the jihadists out of Mali and environs, but also to keep the Malians from overdoing their internal quarrels. It seems possible Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a popular former Touré prime minister with a following in the south and support among Tuareg notables in the north (who distanced themselves from the rebels during the fighting), will emerge as a consensus candidate in the July 28 presidential election from among the score on the ballot; but it may be useful to ask whether Mali is viable as presently constituted. With the northern and southern factions, and the factions within these, mutually accusing one another of banditry, war crimes, and massive human rights violations, it is quite possible that the jihad, while a complicating factor and an immediate security threat, is not the leading cause of unrest in Mali and other countries in the Sahel. 

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