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PV Vivekanand: UN headed for Mali action
September 23, 2012
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The UN Security Council appears to be headed for US-engineered military intervention to root out militants linked to Al Qaeda who have seized control of Mali’s northern region. On Friday, the Security Council called on the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) – a bloc of West African countries – to submit a detailed plan for military intervention in Mali. Presumably, the plan would call for establishment of a military force that will be supported by the African Union and the United Nations.

The UN is moving forward on the basis of its charter that permits it to intervene only if the host country requests it to do so. Exceptions could be made on the basis of Chapter 7 which it used in the case of Iraq and Libya.

This time around, Mali’s government has sought backing from the UN,  including aerial support and five battalions, to fight off the militants in the troubled northern region.

The problem in Mali is a fallout of the Libyan civil war that  saw the regime of Muammar Qadhafi being ousted and the long-time dictator himself being brutally murdered last year.

Many of Mali’s Tuaregs were fighters for Qadhafi’s private militias who found themselves at the receiving end of retribution by the anti-Qadhafi forces after the regime was overthrown. They were chased out of Libya or left on their own, but they brought with them the weapons and military vehicles that were in their possession, including heavy guns and military tanks when they crossed the border into their native land. There have also been reports that fighters aligned with Al Qaeda and other militant groups were also siphoning weapons looted from Qadhafi’s warehouses out of Libya to neighbouring countries, including Mali.

A rebellion for a separate state for the Tuaregs called Azawad has been simmering for decades, but the Tuareg insurgents did not have much fighting power against the regime. The result was northern Mali being rife with hunger, poverty and civil strife.

The arrival of the armed Tuareg militiamen from Libya changed the balance of power, with Tuaregs with a nationalist agenda made capable of waging an armed conflict with the regime. They were backed by Salafist militants with a ‘jihadist’ agenda and loosely aligned with groups like Al Qaeda. The militants came from several countries, including Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Algeria, seeking to create what they would consider a puritan Islamic state.

A military coup in late March in the  Malian capital, Bamako, allowed the Tuaregs to stage a revolt and gain control of most of northern Mali.  Parallel to that, Al Qaeda-aligned militants, who call themselves Ansar Al Deen, also seized significant parts of territory to impose their will on the local, mostly Muslim, population. The militants call themselves “defenders of the faith,” but their incursion has only led to a large exodus of refugees  into neighbouring countries and more suffering to local residents.

There are similarities between the militants of Mali and the Taliban of Afghanistan.

Reports say that Malian women in the north who used to walk freely now fear to leave their homes without veils. Schools, clinics, and banks have been looted and burned. That sounds very familiar to the way the Taliban ruled Afghanistan until they were ousted in 2001.

The Mali militants have also been destroying monuments that they believe are offensive to the kind of faith that they say they believe in.

Like the Taliban, in the 1990s who dynamited ancient Budhha statues of Bamiyan, Ansar Al Deen militants have attacked ancient mosques in the famed city of Timbuktu that have been declared “World Heritage Sites” by the UN, and these have drawn fury around the world. These attacks turned up international attention on the obscure Ansar Al Deen, which the group is seen to be basking in despite the risk of being targeted for UN-approved military action. And that is largely attributed to the latest UN Security Council move that could indeed lead to military action against the militants.

The key question here is whether there is enough international will to check and eliminate the surge of militants through a military operation simply in the name of “world heritage sites” or citing the threats the Mali-based extremists pose jointly with their allies in neighbouring countries, mainly Algeria and Senegal, to the international interests in the region.

In the case of the Taliban and the Buddha statues, the world did not do much to express issuing statements of condemnation over the damage done to the ancient structures. Will the response be different this time around?

The US could not be expected to care much for heritage sites in Africa, but it does have an interest in fighting off the militants since they do pose a threat to American political and economic interests in that part of the continent.

The most potent by-product of anti-US sentiments exploited by militants in North Africa is the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) group in the region.

The US does maintain an active military presence across North Africa, from Mauritania in the west to Somalia in the east, but, except in the cases of Somalia and Yemen where the US has been waging drone wars, US military actions have been limited largely to monitoring militant suspects and camps and supporting the host governments to fight them.

However, the militant threat in Mali adds to that in Somalia, where the US is helping African forces to fight the militant Al Shabab fighters and, in Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, where Ansar Al Sharia is posing a threat to the Sanaa government and, by extension, to the US interests in the region.

Mali’s neighbours, as represented by Ecowas, have been warning of military intervention against the coup leaders since early April but they have not been able to practically demonstrate their will and power to adopt practical action. Their best course of action would be to support the mainstream Tuareg movement but keeping a close eye on ties between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and Ansar Al Deen. Relations between the two are under strain in the wake of the militants’ quest to rule by themselves the area under their control, but external military intervention could bring them under one umbrella in a marriage of convenience. That could prove disastrous for not only the people of northern Mali but also any invading force.

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