- As Washington broadens its military “footprint” in the Sahel region of Africa, U.S. analysts are urging the administration of President Barack Obama to devote more effort to diplomacy, especially in Mali.
In particular, they are calling for Washington to press for a swift transfer of power to a democratically elected government in Bamako which can then reach out to rebel Tuareg forces in hopes of driving a wedge between them and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and other armed Islamist groups that, until this week, controlled northern Mali for most of the past year.
And they insist that the U.S.-backed French-led offensive that drove AQIM and its allies out of three key towns in northeastern Mali over the past 10 days will not be sufficient to secure the France-sized region indefinitely without some kind of settlement between Bamako and the Tuaregs.
“Clearly there has to be a political solution at some point,” according to David Shinn, an Africa specialist at George Washington University and former ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.
"What the latest military activity is not doing is dealing with the Tuareg problem which has to be addressed seriously,” he told IPS.
Since the French-Malian offensive against the AQIM and its allies was launched Jan. 11, Washington has taken a series of steps both to support the offensive and to broaden its own military involvement in the larger Sahel region.
The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that it had concluded a new military accord with the government of Niger to set up a base for Predator drones to carry out surveillance missions over the region’s vast desert areas.
U.S. officials have not ruled the possibility that the drones could eventually be deployed to carry out strikes against suspected AQIM militants, much as they have been used against the group’s ideological counterparts in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
The base announcement followed Washington’s initially halting agreement to Paris’s requests for intelligence, logistical, and aerial-refuelling support during the French offensive, which reached the storied oasis town of Timbuktu earlier in the week.
“We will review further requests from the French,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday. “We strongly support French operations in Mali; this is a key effort. AQIM and other terrorist groups have threatened to establish a safe haven in Mali, and the French have done absolutely the right thing.”
But those steps may be just the beginning of an expanded U.S. military presence in the region through its six-year-old Africa Command (AFRICOM), which has long been seeking a more-active role on the continent, particularly in conducting training missions and joint exercises with the region’s militaries.
Noting the continuing problems with renegade militias in Libya, AQIM’s advances in Mali, as well as the deadly siege by one of its factions at a gas facility in southern Algeria earlier this month, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Congressional hearing last week, “We are going to see more and more demands on AFRICOM.”
Despite their public praise for the French campaign in Mali, U.S. officials, as well as independent analysts here, have voiced concern about what happens next.
France, which has so far deployed about 2,500 troops, has said it hopes to quickly reduce its role by transferring control of the towns it has taken to the Malian army and a U.N.-backed African Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) that could number as many as 6,000, mainly West African troops.
But the Malian army, which ousted the democratically elected civilian government last March, is notoriously undisciplined. The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, among other groups, has reported numerous abuses of human rights committed by Malian soldiers during the offensive, notably against Tuaregs, a lighter-skinned, nomadic people who have long sought independence from Bamako, and some of whose armed factions allied themselves with AQIM last year.
Because of last year’s coup, the U.S. has been barred by law from providing military aid to Mali until a democratically elected government takes power, a factor in Washington’s initially hesitant response to Paris’ requests to aid the military campaign.
A transitional regime, which, however, appears subordinate to a military junta headed by a U.S.-trained officer, Amadou Sanogo, has scheduled elections for July.
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As for AFISMA, small contingents of which have only just begun arriving in Mali, international donors Tuesday pledged nearly 456 million dollars – including 96 million dollars from Washington – to support its operations.
But the original plan called for AFISMA to undergo training and other preparation for several months before deploying to Mali. France’s sudden intervention, which it defended as necessary to prevent a key air base from falling to the rebels, upended the process, calling into question precisely how the West African force will operate.
“The French intervention not only short-circuited the transitional political process in Bamako, but it also short-circuited the (AFISMA’s) preparation,” noted J. Peter Pham, head of African studies at the Atlantic Council here.
“These troops are now being thrown in to an unfamiliar setting without any training. They’ve never operated together; they literally don’t speak the same language.
“And in about eight weeks, the rains will come to Mali, which will render much of the country impassable until September, so they’ll be doing garrison duty in towns surrounded by a vast territory that the enemy knows much better.”
Instead of putting up stiff resistance to the French-led offensive, AQIM and its allies appear to have dispersed into desert hideouts in the region from which analysts fear they will be able to carry out hit-and-run attacks against the Malian and AFISMA forces.
“What’s clear is that they will strike and will continue to strike,” said Nicolas Van de Walle, a Maghreb expert at Cornell University. “We know from experience that they’re really hard to get rid of in strictly military terms.”
Pham agreed, noting that France’s unilateralism in undertaking its offensive has put Washington, which is determined avoid putting U.S. “boots on the ground”, in a bind.
“The quandary is that we have a long-standing ally who has now stretched itself out, and we can’t leave them dangling there, as gratifying as that might be. On the other hand, what they’re doing is not sustainable. They’ve now managed to secure two or three towns in northern Mali, but they’re certainly inadequate to securing any of the countryside.”
To both Pham and Van de Welle, the key now lies with applying pressure on Bamako to create a legitimate government that can persuade the Tuaregs to cut their ties to AQIM.
“The government in Bamako is still a military junta by another name,” said Pham, “and no Tuaregs are going to make any deal with that kind of regime.”
That may also mean pressing France itself to coordinate more closely with Washington on the political front, he added, noting that Paris has just convinced the European Commission to release 92 million Euros to Mali that it had withheld since the coup d’etat.
“That’s 92 million reasons for the regime not to give up power and restore the constitutional order,” he warned.
“The U.S. should be forcing a political settlement in Bamako,” Van de Walle told IPS. “Before the coup, Mali had a reasonable democracy, so they should be able to move pretty quickly toward elections.
“That’s the start of any political settlement. It’s possible to peel off the Tuaregs from their alliance with AQIM, and that would make a big difference because you could make at least the northeastern part of Mali secure.
“But there has to be a credible deal with Bamako, and the U.S. can’t broker that militarily,” he added.