March 1, 2013  

An unnecessary success

France’s Mali intervention could have been avoided

From most perspectives, France’s recent intervention in Mali has been wildly successful. Within days of their arrival in January, French forces turned back al-Qaida-led fighters closing in on Bamako, the capital, and soon retook the key cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. As of press time, they had pushed the armed factions back to the vast open desert of northern Mali, effectively ending the immediate and direct threat they posed to the country.

However, those who see Operation Serval as a model of security cooperation between the West and African partner nations would do well to remember one key point: It shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.

There will always be events that trigger unforeseen conflagrations. Nobody predicted that self-immolation by Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi would spark the Arab Spring and lead to the overthrow of two of Africa’s longest-ruling dictators. Indeed, it was the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi that resulted in hundreds of Tuareg mercenaries returning to Mali heavily armed, combat-hardened and ready to re-energize their fight for independence. However, the key events that resulted in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) threatening to take Bamako were of Mali’s own making. It is only by recognizing this that future security efforts in the region will bear more fruit than they have thus far.

First, the Malian government’s ineffective response to the Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country served, ostensibly at least, as the impetus to Capt. Amadou Sanogo’s March 2012 coup d’état. (Subsequent looting and other criminal acts by soldiers have tarnished the purity of any stated intentions behind the putsch.) Had the Malian government properly resourced its military, or had the military effectively implemented a strategy for dealing with the rebels, the fighting there may have ended or, at least, remained no more than a series of skirmishes — deadly for the combatants, certainly, but hardly the debacle that led Malian soldiers to join the rebel ranks or simply disappear.

Instead, the dissolution of the army in the wake of the coup created a vacuum quickly filled by secular separatist groups such as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. It wasn’t long before the anti-government movement was taken over by the more opportunistic AQIM, along with groups such as Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar al-Dine, which marginalized nationalistic aspirations in favor of jihadist ones. And once the demoralized Malian military began retreating south in the face of the advancing militants, they didn’t stop.

Second, the Malian military proved unwilling or unable to put to use the training and equipment it had received. Europe and the U.S. have put considerable effort into assisting Mali; the U.S. alone has provided aid worth almost $1 billion over the last decade. The efforts include millions of dollars for engagement and security cooperation through programs such as the U.S. State Department’s Global Peace Operations Initiative and its training component, the African Contingency Training and Assistance, as well as the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative. The U.S. hoped that the Malian army would prove to be “a model for fighting Islamic extremism in one of the most forbidding regions of the world.” Given the speed with which the soldiers fled the advance of the militants, this program clearly did not achieve its objectives.

Relatedly, withdrawing from the vast open spaces — guarded by, in French Gen. Francois Lecointre’s words, “underequipped, badly paid, badly trained” Malian soldiers — should have made the defense of key cities easier for the army. Consolidating their forces during tactical withdrawals could have made for a more effective defense against the loosely affiliated groups facing them. However, the disorganization that followed in the wake of the coup left an already ineffective military without the ability to attempt to respond to this threat, and within weeks, the hollowness of the military establishment became uncomfortably obvious.

The West does bear some responsibility for the poor performance of the Malian Army, as the type of training that Mali has received has largely been tactical. Experienced war fighters from U.S. Special Forces and Canadian Special Operations provided Malians with some of the best small-unit training in the world. However, while this undoubtedly made the individual soldiers and their platoons more effective, it would have done nothing to help the maneuver commanders — those commanding battalions and brigades — more effective and leading those units, to say nothing of the generalship of senior leaders. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Africa Command, has admitted as much.

“We were focusing our training almost exclusively on tactical or technical matters, how to operate various pieces of equipment, how to improve effectiveness of tactical operations and the like,” the general said in a Jan. 27 speech in Washington, D.C.

Had the West put as much effort into developing the operational and strategic level leadership of Mali, it may have affected a more positive outcome against the rebel groups or at least kept the rebellion more localized.

Getting Past the Past

Preventing a repeat of this, both in Mali and elsewhere in Africa, will require several important steps.

First, France and Mali need to recognize the difference between the Tuareg separatists and al-Qaida militants, and respond to each separately. The Tuaregs are unlikely to give up on a cause for which they have fought since Malian independence in 1960 (a cause that doesn’t threaten the seat of power). However, because of the success of the French-Malian response, it appears that the Tuaregs are willing to work with the government in Bamako in alliance against the Islamists, weakening the overall strength of the opposition. No rebel group lasts a half-century without some degree of pragmatism, and some of this is obviously out of concern about governmental reprisals. However, it may also serve as an entrée for a negotiated settlement with the Tuaregs in order to prevent a resurgence of violence.

Mali should consider allowing some sort of autonomous region in the vastly ungoverned spaces of the north. Something for which other West African nations have pushed as well, this may both quench the desire for a fully independent state, and create a buffer zone, a forward line of “skirmishers,” who can react to AQIM faster and potentially more effectively than the Malian military has proven themselves capable of. And, by working with separatists who bear only nationalist aspirations, the government can further marginalize irreconcilable jihadists, who pose a threat to state sovereignty. This will allow the West and African partner nations to more effectively address the latter and reduce the regional security threats.

Second, Western nations should increase training opportunities afforded to midgrade and senior military leaders of partner nations. The U.S., in particular, should increase the amount of funding for the International Military Education and Training program out of the $96 million it has pledged to Mali. While marksmanship and map reading are important skills for soldiers, the ability to see the big picture and react accordingly is vital for national-level commands and is one of the gaps that recent events have exposed in Mali. Attendance at military schools such as the Command and General Staff College or the Army War College provide an excellent opportunity for senior leaders in African militaries to develop these essential skill sets and return more able to lead armies, not just squads.

Finally, the still-nascent African Standby Force needs to have the ability to react quickly to threats to member states. Each of its five regional brigades will someday be able to serve as a stability force, but they do not have the lift assets to react quickly, nor does the ASF have a designated quick-reaction force. By designating one troop-contributing country from each of the regional blocs (such as Nigeria for ECOWAS and South Africa for the SADC Brigade), each ASF Brigade can deploy peacekeepers in a more timely manner, precluding the need for Western nations, former colonial powers or not, to get involved.


The Mali intervention was a military success, led by a joint and interagency French force and supported by elements from about a dozen African, European and North American militaries. But it should not be mistaken as a paradigm of Western intervention in Africa. Except for the some 6,000 French citizens living there, it is doubtful that Paris would have gotten involved. This would have left Sanogo’s government and its citizens to their own devices, and raised the very real possibility of al-Qaida taking over an African country.

However, it is possible, and necessary, for other nations to learn from the mistakes that facilitated this situation. By addressing the grievances of irredentist groups and marginalizing Islamic jihadists, focusing security capacity-building efforts on midgrade and senior military leadership and structuring the African Standby Force’s regional brigades to be able to respond to a crisis, it is possible that African nations will be able to face their own security challenges with minimal interaction with Western stakeholders.

This is not to say that the U.S. and European powers cannot help in a crisis; their advantages in logistics, funding and intelligence are simply too great for African partners to forgo. However, the idea of “African solutions to African problems” is one that has been long on words and short on effectiveness.

Given the threat posed by Islamic groups such as AQIM, it is a concept that the region, and the continent, can scarcely afford to ignore.


Maj. Shawn Russell is an Army Foreign Area Officer specializing in Sub-Saharan Africa. He holds a master’s degree in international security from the University of Denver, and his previous assignments include working at the Office of Security Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, Morocco.