Mali: Rebuilding its army to win the peace

Mali: Rebuilding its army to win the peace

If French diplomacy has been sidelined in Syria with the Russo-American initiative, in Mali it has been setting the agenda, achieving both military and diplomatic successes. New challenges await.

It even surprised American generals, but “medium power” France has done it practically alone. It projected force (4,500 soldiers with air power), dealing a lethal blow to the jihadist groups in the aftermath of their offensive from the north last January.

The defense minister, Jean-Yves le Drian, declared that “the whole territory has been liberated and the threat is now greatly diminished.” Military success has been matched with diplomatic victories.

Its exit strategy also appears to be falling into place. On April 22 the French Parliament voted to extend the military operation launched in early January upon the request of Malian authorities. On April 25 the French-sponsored U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing the deployment of a peace-keeping mission (MINUSMA, 11,200 “blue helmets”) was passed. The transition is planned for July.

As the French presence is gradually scaled down, the security vacuum left behind must be filled.

“Peace-keeping” is not “peace enforcement.” France has thus pushed for the inclusion of a special “support” unit with authority to “use all means necessary” to fight insurgents if necessary (1,000 soldiers, mostly special forces). The stakes are high in a region experiencing growing instability.

African leaders are worried that the Mali scenario – radical Islamist groups overthrowing a weakened central government – could be repeated elsewhere in Western and Central Africa.

Recent developments do not augur well. Nigeria has launched a military offensive against Islamist insurgency while the capital of the Central African Republic seems to be sinking into chaos following a coup d’état.

The relationship between France and its former colonies is constantly evolving. It is precisely because profound and complex historical, economic and cultural links exist between them that security in francophone Africa matters to French security and to its national interests. The simple truth is that without the intervention, al-Qaeda-linked groups would have reached Bamako. In many ways, the former colonial power’s readiness and willingness to act has reinforced its standing and influence.

The Chadian president, Idriss Deby, did not hesitate to send his crack troops to fight alongside
France’s elite forces to destroy Islamist insurgency. The expertise in desert warfare of the 2,000-strong lightly armed, highly mobile force has been invaluable in helping liberate the northern territories.

But the sacrifice in blood of Chadian and French soldiers, the mounting cost of the operation (200 million euros) may all come to naught if the underfunded and notoriously corrupt Malian army is not turned into a force capable of exercising control over the country’s vast territory and porous borders.

Much rests on the French-led “EU” Training Mission (EUTM) which must deliver on a modest budget of 12 million euros with little support other than verbal from its European partners.

Efforts to rebuild a professional fighting force in the aftermath of a bitter conflict that reignited ancestral ethnic tensions will take time. But failure is not an option. Squabbling among the Malian elite must also end if the rebirth of a once thriving African democracy is to take place. Its people are waiting.

Sophie Quintin Adalı is an analyst for, the francophone project of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.