The probability of outside military intervention in the West African country of Mali, with possible participation of both regional armies and, at least indirectly, of NATO forces, has increased sharply. French President Francois Hollande has announced that he will ask UN Security Council sanction for such an action by African troops. The United States is likely to support this. The Malian government, after much wrangling, now is definitely asking for intervention.
With the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi last year, vast quantities of armaments fell into the hands of irregular fighters in neighboring countries. In Mali, this led to a surge of armed Tuareg separatist activity in late 2011 and early 2012. Tuareg rebels, grouped in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), aim at creating an independent state (Azawad) for their people, who are spread over vast desert regions of Mali, Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso.
On March 21 of this year, Captain Amadou Sanogo, a U.S.-trained army officer, overthrew the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré which, Sanogo complained, was not providing enough support for Malian soldiers fighting the Tuareg rebellion. But instead of bolstering the fight, the coup completely disorganized it, and the rebels took advantage of the situation to seize the entire northern two-thirds of the country, including the historic city of Timbuktu.
Mali's neighbors were shocked by the Tuareg rebel advance and also by the fact that it opened the door to militant Islamic extremist salafist forces linked to al Qaeda, whom the MNLA considered to be tactical allies but who soon eclipsed and pushed aside the Tuareg group. The salafists have established themselves as rulers of Timbuktu, Gao and other places in the North. While the MNLA advocates a separate Tuareg state, the salafist groups, some of whom have enriched themselves by various kinds of smuggling and kidnapping activities, do not want to break up Mali but want to force their brand of Islam on the whole country.
In April, Sanogo was pressured by neighboring countries into stepping aside to make way for a veteran civilian politician, Diancounda Traouré, to take the position of "interim president." But the soldiers did not step completely out of the picture and Sanogo still asserts some power. On May 21, acting President Traouré was ambushed in his office by Sanogo supporters and beaten so badly that he had to be taken to France for two months of treatment, leading to further delays of efforts to find a solution.
Meanwhile, the salafists, said to include many non-Malians, were consolidating their hold on the north. Not only neighboring countries but also France and the other NATO powers, including the United States, were becoming more and more worried that Mali would become the launching pad for new al-Qaeda style terrorist attacks in Africa and beyond.
In the north, the new rulers, including Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, have been implementing their own strict interpretation of sharia law, in sharp conflict with the easygoing, sufi-influenced Islam of the region. There are many reports of sufi shrines being destroyed, and of people being whipped for drinking, smoking or listening to music. Thieves' feet and hands have been cut off, and women have been harassed for going out unveiled or unaccompanied. Child soldiers are also being recruited.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), consisting of Mali and 14 other West African countries, has wanted to organize a regional military intervention in Mali, but this has been opposed by Sanogo and his supporters. But now ECOWAS and the Malian government appear to have agreed on an intervention. On Thursday, there was also a large demonstration in Mali's capital, Bamako, demanding ECOWAS intervention.
Several hundred thousand people have fled northern Mali, swamping the resources of neighboring governments and humanitarian agencies. This comes on top of chronic distress caused by creeping desertification of the whole Sahel area, and a severe drought this year. Aid agencies fear that any military intervention in the north will exacerbate this crisis.
Many commentators have concluded that rebel groups, including the similar Boko Haram ("Western Education is Evil") group in Nigeria, are able to recruit followers because of the economic neglect of the population. The suggestion is that if the money to be spent for military might were spent for food and education, better results might ensue. But is it now too late?
People in countries neighboring Mali, such as Mauretania, express worry that an armed intervention, especially if it involves Western troops, might create an even bigger conflict. Others are extremely suspicious of any French involvement, given the heavy handed role France has sometimes played in the region since independence.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called for extreme caution in any action in Mali.
Photo: French President Francois Hollande addresses the press at Mediterranean summit of southern European and North African countries, in Valletta, Malta, Oct. 5. At the summit of five European and five African nations, France pushed for a military intervention in Mali. Andrew Medichini/AP