Two and a half weeks ago, soil in the divided West African country of Mali felt something it hadn’t since the end of colonial rule; French military boots. For now, though, Operation Serval, aiming to wipe out aggressive global jihad groups in the north, namely Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, is supported by the local population.
The essential history here, in this reporter’s humble opinion, is as follows; militant ethnic Tuaregs in Northern Mali renewed decades-long attempts to gain autonomy in January of last year, after the Libyan Civil War “freed” some of their numbers and many weapons across the desert border. Their military successes, under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA,) were small, but growing, until the Malian military staged a coup in April, upset with the democratic government’s blind eye and small budget. This left a power vacuum in the north, which the Tuareg rebels quickly consolidated and named Azawad.
The rise of Ansar Dine and MUJOU challenged the secular Tuaregs, who attempted to negate their growing influence by signing a power-sharing deal. However, MNLA was unprepared for governance and naïve to certain geopolitical realities, and when the global jihadists attempted imposing their strict, Salafist interpretations of Sharia law, the MNLA fought them, and lost within days.
Thus, the United Nations, with the support of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), have been vying for an intervention, to reclaim the area for the Malian government. But while there is little to no support for Ansar Dine, countries were hesitant to occupy Islamist-controlled areas, and let Azawad suffer under jihadist rule for seven months before this recent intervention. So, why now, why the French, and what does the future hold for this mission?
The first two questions should really be one, and the answer is the most obvious one; it was an opportune moment. The French, like most colonial powers, remain invested in their old colonies, and have been active in the domestic politics of countries such as the Ivory Coast and Rwanda. Just the day before the French landed, a French hostage had been executed in Somalia.
As well, the French own or have large stakes in a number of uranium mines throughout the region, and have helped battle a similar insurgency in Niger. Global jihadists have increasingly sought funding through kidnapping foreign engineers in the region, and security officials have become concerned about the possibility of these uranium mines being compromised by militants with minimal self-restraint.
The French, leading Malian forces, are not there to occupy the north. Their job is to clear the way for ECOWAS troops, who could then remain to ensure stability and central control. President Goodluck Jonathon of Nigeria has been pressing other African states to commit troops and Tanzania, Chad, South Africa, Rwanda and Uganda have all committed to add to Nigeria’s 4,000-strong battalion.
For the past five years, Nigeria has been battling extremists, named Boko Haram, that have killed nearly 2,000 people and done much to strain domestic north-south relations. They are thus more than willing partners in an emerging global coalition to push global jihadists out from the Sahara; on top of new bases in the region, the U.S. has endorsed a Nigerian role in the fight. There have also been claims that Boko Haram members were trained in Mali.
This Monday, French troops surrounded and captured Timbouktou, where militants had been destroying some of the oldest mosques and Islamic holy sites in the world. Unfortunately, most militants seem to have fled into secure locations in the desert, making the job of tracking them down significantly harder. The UK has now committed 350 troops to the fight as well.
What does this French excursion into the Sahara mean for everyone else? Chiefly, it means that global jihadists are not merely bogeymen who’ve been blown out of proportion to justify torture and war, but powerful players in weak states with a taste for cruelty. As well, Europeans and Africans are not content to stand by while America fights all the global jihadists.
So if you were worried Obama’s drone wars were merely turning more and more against the war against global jihadists, fear not; global jihadists make plenty of enemies for themselves, and are helping spur to action a number of previously disinterested states. However, we should still tread carefully in the aftermath of this invasion, and make sure there are troops who will remain to ensure stability and integrity in Mali, while not marginalizing ethnic Tuaregs from the political process.