Mali Is Not a Stan

When it comes to covering Africa's latest conflict, it's suddenly amateur hour.


For nearly 10 months, Mali sat on the international community’s back-burner of global crises in need of addressing. The eurozone, Syria’s civil war, and China and Japan’s dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands garnered far more column inches among America’s talking heads than did the situation in Mali, where an inadvertent coup d’état last March by low-level military officers created a security vacuum in the country’s north. Meanwhile, the usual small group of experts on the Sahel — the vast, parched region spanning across Africa from Mauritania to Sudan — watched closely as jihadist groups seized more and more territory, imposing a harsh from of Islamic law upon hapless Malian civilians.

It wasn’t until Jan. 11, when France began bombing the Islamists to stop their advance on Mali’s government-held south, that the rest of the world snapped to attention. And that’s when the trouble began: the terrible headlines, the misleading cover art, and the bad analysis.

But first, some background on how we got here. By April 2012, the collapse of state authority in northern Mali had allowed a separatist rebel movement, the MNLA (the French acronym for National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), to take over the north’s major cities and to declare the independence of their long-dreamed-of state of Azawad. The dream of Azawad lasted less than two months, when MNLA fighters were pushed out of power by three Islamist groups, Ansar Dine, MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). These movements attempted to erect governance structures and systems based on a strict interpretation of sharia in the areas they controlled, going so far as to impose such penalties as cutting off hands for accusations of theft, requiring women to wear hijab in public, and segregating boys and girls at school.

Despite displacing over 100,000 people, the 2012 turmoil in northern Mali did not provoke much international response beyond pro forma condemnations. It took the Security Council until late December to approve a plan to retake northern Mali via the deployment of a 3,300-person West African force.  That plan involved extensive training for West African troops, and no sort of invasion was expected before late 2013 at the earliest.

Fast-forward to mid-January, when the French stunned the world with the speed of their intervention. France’s involvement in the crisis expanded quickly; as of this writing, there are approximately 3,000 French forces deployed to the country. In addition, a total African force of 7,700 soldiers is deploying to fight alongside the Malian army to secure and protect the country’s north. These forces have taken control of the cities of Gao and Timbuktu, and already France may be signaling its intention to pull back and leave African forces to run the operation.

African affairs are generally a low foreign-policy priority for the United States. As such, the American foreign policy establishment is not well known for its expertise on West African security crises. But France’s sudden and deep engagement in Mali — and limited U.S. support for the operation — left most media outlets and think tanks in need of immediate explanations. Not surprisingly, this state of affairs led to a sudden proliferation of Mali "experts" pontificating on the airways and in print about a country most could not have located with ease on a map two weeks before. False claims based on limited contextual knowledge have since abounded, including one widely repeated claim that this crisis is largely a result of the Libya intervention (it’s not; this happened due to domestic political crises in Mali).

Among the most egregious — and inaccurate — claims about the crisis to emerge is the idea that Mali could become France’s Afghanistan. Apparently based on the understanding that engaging in war against Muslim extremists on difficult terrain in a fragile state, reporters and politicos across the ideological spectrum have embraced the comparison, warning of the possibility of mission creep and/or other dire consequences. The Economist took this notion the farthest last week, dedicating its cover to "Afrighanistan?" Time followed suit with a brief cover reference to "Africanistan.

The idea that Mali is or could be the next Afghanistan is flat-out wrong, as is the notion that France’s role in West Africa is likely to be akin to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. While there are comparisons to be made (e.g., both countries are struggling to combat the presence of Islamist extremists), the two situations are so different that defining them as near-equivalents only serves to muddle clear thinking about Mali’s current and future prospects. Remember all those comparisons of Afghanistan to Vietnam? The historical analogy had only very limited utility because the former’s history and context had almost nothing in common with the latter’s. Likewise, Mali’s uniqueness means that outcomes in that country — as well as the depth and breadth of French engagement — will no doubt be very different.

How is Mali different from Afghanistan? First, Mali is not where empires go to die. Afghanistan is well-known as a place that has always been difficult for any outsiders to invade and sustain military engagement, much less establish governing institutions. What governing institutions are established have long been weak and largely decentralized structures that allow local and tribal leaders maximum autonomy. Mali, by contrast, has a longer history of at least some centralized rule. The Mali Empire, which governed a huge swath of West Africa from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, included the renowned city of scholarship in Timbuktu. Mali’s colonization by France in 1892 was largely peaceful, and the country has never engaged in a serious war until now, with the exception of a brief and violent border dispute with Burkina Faso in the mid-1980s. France’s exit from Mali at the end of colonization was accomplished peacefully as well.

France’s engagement in Mali is also unlike U.S. engagement in Afghanistan in that, because of their colonial history, the French know what they are getting into. There are decades of outstanding French scholarship on Mali; France is practically drowning in Mali experts in government, academia, and the private sector. This is more important than many realize; having deep cultural and historical knowledge and a shared language (most educated Malians still speak French) makes it much easier for French forces to relate to average Malians and build friendships with key local leaders whose support will be necessary for long-term success.

Not surprisingly, French forces have been greeted by most Malians as liberators, with one citizen complimenting their desire to learn how to properly greet in the Bambara language in an interview with Reuters. In a country where extended and elaborate greeting rituals are a very important feature of communal life, knowing the importance of greeting others correctly is probably the single most important means by which French soldiers will win Malian hearts and minds.

Third, Mali is not Afghanistan because there are no Pashtuns. While the MNLA separatists are comprised of some members of the Tuareg ethic group, outside of that dynamic, ethnicity in Mali is much less a basis of contention than it is in Afghanistan. Indeed, the most interesting social dynamic in Mali may be the relationship between competing forms of Islamic devotion, not ethnic groups. Likewise, Mali lacks an equivalent to Pakistan — there is no neighboring state or individuals in that state who share militants’ ethnicity and have the backing of elements of a hostile spy agency. The Islamists who do operate in northern Mali are a disparate group with diffuse goals, as this series of posts by Sahel expert Andrew Lebovich make clear. Ansar Dine just split, and it is likely that the group dynamics of the Islamists will continue to evolve in the near future. This is not to say that ethnicity and other social cleavages do not matter in Mali; they do. But unlike in Afghanistan, they are not directly tied up in the dynamics of northern Mali’s Islamists. Many Islamist leaders in northern Mali aren’t even Malians.

Finally, the circumstances of French intervention in Mali are completely different from those of the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan. The French did not invade Mali; the Malian government asked them to come assist in repelling the Islamists. France also intervened with the clear expectation and understanding that the bulk of peace-building in Mali will be conducted by an African force, and that local and regional African leaders will have long term responsibility for the crisis. The French do not seem to have plans to stick around, build forward operating bases, and attempt to govern on their own terms. Furthermore, the stated goal of the French intervention is to rid northern Mali of Islamist militants rather than the more ambiguous goals of the U.S. "War on Terror." France laid out a measurable objective for fighting from the beginning. In this, the French seem determined to avoid the pitfalls of Afghanistan rather than replicating them.

That said, Mali’s future is far from certain. There are already signs that the MNLA are trying to reassert authority in northern Mali, which could lead to more violence in the weeks and months to come. Mali’s domestic politics are still far from settled; the junta that staged the coup that created this mess is still very much around and willing to intervene in politics, though their power seems to have diminished since the French arrived. Mali’s president has announced his intention to hold elections by July 31, but whether doing so will be logistically or politically possible remains anyone’s guess. The only thing that is clear is that America’s punditocracy will need to understand the crisis for some time to come. They might do well to call some actual Mali experts next time.

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