by Christine Smith
Last month, at the request of Mali’s Bamako government, France sent 4,000 troops to their former colony to help African forces stop the seizure of northern cities by Islamic militants. Known as Operation Serval, the French-led forces quickly recaptured the historically, culturally, and politically significant cities of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. Since this initial French military success, however, the conflict in Mali has become even more complicated.
On Friday, Feb. 22, as a result of heavy fighting around Ifoghas Mountain, where members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are believed to be hiding, 13 Chadian soldiers were killed. In addition, three members of the pro-French Tuareg group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) were killed Friday as a result of twin suicide car bombings near the city of Tessalit.
The increased violence throughout the country coupled with France’s desire to withdraw troops from the region has caused other countries’ involvement to greatly increase. Chad, for example, recently promised to deploy an additional 2,000 troops to Mali as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA). The U.S. has also joined in the efforts, announcing the opening of a U.S. base in neighboring Niger on Friday, Feb. 22. Roughly 100 troops are already at the base where unarmed Predator drones will be kept and used for surveillance purposes. Interestingly, this move comes just one month after the U.S. agreed to fly French troops and supplies into the country. Further adding to the complexity of this situation, Italy also entered the conflict recently when it agreed to send two cargo planes and between 15 and 24 military instructors to help the E.U. train Malian forces. Canada and Britain are deploying military transport aircraft as well. On Friday, Russia also announced the beginning of its involvement in the conflict by delivering 36 tons of aid to the country, including canned food, 45 tents, 2,000 blankets, cereals, and rice. Russia’s action comes just one day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov met with the U.N. Special Envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi about the ongoing conflict in Mali.
However, despite united global concern about the country, divisions reminiscent of the Cold War are already becoming apparent. While Russia has supported French-led efforts to combat terrorism in Mali in order to prevent it from spreading to other parts of North Africa, Russia has simultaneously criticized Western nations, like France, for fighting rebels in Mali, who they once armed in Libya to oust former Libyan President Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi. The U.S., on the other hand, feels that getting involved militarily is necessary. By placing several unarmed Predator drones in Niger, the U.S., according to the leader of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, General Carter F. Ham, will fill an urgent need for more information about regional terrorist threats, including the militants in Mali and the flow of fighters and weapons out of Libya into neighboring countries.
If the violence in Mali continues, up to 700,000 people could soon be displaced inside the state as well as in surrounding countries. France is therefore urging the U.N. to establish a peacekeeping mission. With all of these efforts by the international community to resolve the conflict, one can only hope that involvement in the country will benefit Malians as much as it does global security.
Facts and figures obtained from CNN, The New York Times, BBC News, and Voice of America.
Christine Smith recently received her B.A. in Political Science and two minors in African Studies and Anthropology from Boston University. She is currently a first year M.A. in African Studies student at UCLA focusing on human rights issues in East Africa. She is also an editor with The Generation.