Mali is waiting

Islamist militias and their supporters in the illegal drugs and arms trade are firmly in control of northern Mali. Only inter­national military action with a UN mandate can dispel them.

By Peter Hille

By the end of November, the UN Security Council expects the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to draft a plan for driving Islamist militias away from northern Mali. On the basis of such a plan, it promises to sanction military action. That is what the Security Council announced on 12 October. The snag is that it has done so before: on 21 September, on 10 August, on 5 July and on 18 June.

ECOWAS is prepared to send 3300 troops to Mali to fight Ansar Dine and the other armed groups that collectively grabbed power in the north of the country earlier this year. So far, however, such plans have not convinced the UN. The underlying ideas look too vague and the goals seem blurry. No doubt, ECOWAS’ poor track record is of concern too. ECOWAS soldiers committed terrible crimes in Liberia in the 1990s. Let’s not forget, however, that Security Council’s mandate for military action in Libya was what allowed Islamist forces to grow strong in northern Mali in the first place. Otherwise, they would not have had easy access to heavy weaponry.

­Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-gen­eral, correctly points out the serious humanitarian risks of military invention, including masses fleeing and aid no longer being available. The catastrophe he wants to prevent, however, is already taking place. Hundred thousands of refugees have left their homes, and those who stayed, now live under a terror regime of violent fundamentalists.

Today, the Islamists are forbidding music, dance and sports. The new regime is destroying mosques and other places of worship that pertain to an age-old culture of Muslim mysticism, which the hardliners find misguided. The Islamists are cutting off hands of those they believe to be thieves and stone to death those they assume guilty of adultery. The militias are recruiting juveniles and blocking humanitarian aid. With the support of gangs that are involved in the illegal drugs and arms trade, these forces took advantage of a military coup in spring to grab power in northern Mali, and they have since also beaten the Tuareg rebels they were ini­tially allied to.

It obviously is worth trying to improve matters in northern Mali in negotiations. And yes, it would be nice if Mali’s regular armed forces with military advice from abroad managed to regain control of their country’s north. Hardly anyone in Mali, however, believes the government is capable of liberating the north, whether by force or in negotiations.

The governments of the advanced rich nations are increasingly shying away from troop deployments. As a result, the only ­alternative to letting the Islamists reign in northern Mali is action by ECOWAS and the African Union. The Security Council must be realistic. It must not indefinitely postpone action by the governments of Mali’s neighbours that are willing to assume responsibility. This situation is certainly difficult for those who must take the decision, but it is even more difficult for the people who are suffering in northern Mali.

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