Key U.N. powers said today that Mali's military's arrest and ouster of the country's transitional leader, Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, would not deter the U.N. Security Council from forging ahead with plans to intervene in Mali to confront Islamists militants in the north of the country. But it did little to paper over differences between the United States and France on how to get the job done.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, offered a decidedly uncharitable assessment of a French- and African-backed plan to retake control of northern Mali from a coalition of Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda. "It's crap," the U.S. envoy told a gathering of U.N.-based officials, according to one of the officials. Rice's office declined to comment.
The American envoy's assessment reflected deep misgivings that the Malian army, supported by a Nigerian-led coalition of 3,300 troops from 15 Western African countries has the manpower or the skills required to contend with a battle-tested insurgency with experience fighting in the Sahel's unforgiving desert. Rice's candor also deals a setback to a long, drawn-out effort by France and West African countries to secure U.N. Security Council mandate for a regional intervention force in Mali.
The United States is not alone in having misgivings. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently issued a report that argued against an immediate military intervention in Mali, saying the international community should devote its attention to stitching together a political agreement among Mali's squabbling groups, setting force aside as a "last resort." Herve Ladsous, the head of the U.N.'s peacekeeping department and one of the U.N.'s few advocates of military intervention, said recently that even if the intervention plan is approved it would take until September or October, 2013, for the international force to be deployed.
"We should not forget that in any military intervention, even when successful, tens of thousands more people are likely to become displaced both inside the country and across borders," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told the Security Council on Monday. "Newly arriving refugees in the neighboring countries are increasingly citing the prospect of military intervention as one of the reasons that pushed them to flee."
Despite these concerns -- and Rice's frank remark -- the United States supports military action in Mali to confront Islamist militants. Just not yet. And not without a role for some of America's most important counterterrorism allies (principally Algeria) that are not members of the West African peacekeeping coalition, and which have so far proven reluctant to sign on to a risky fight with Mali's Islamists that could provoke the group's allies inside Algeria.
The predicament has contributed to the impression of American policymaking as confused in confronting the spread of terrorism and militant Islam in Mali, where insurgents have benefited from an influx of weapons from Libya in the wake of Muammar al-Qaddafi's downfall. But some officials believe the muddled picture is more a reflection of the fact that America's counterinsurgency strategy in the region remains a work in progress.
The Obama administration is seeking broader congressional support for counterterrorism operations in Mali and other northern African countries, while U.S. military planners have been pressing Mali's neighbors with desert fighting experience, including Algeria, Chad, and Mauritania, to participate in military action. William Burns, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, traveled to Algiers over the weekend to prod the government into deepening its role in Mali.
But American diplomats in New York have been urging the Security Council to go slowly, putting off a foreign campaign to confront the Islamists until a new president is elected.
Washington favors what it calls a "two-step authorization" of military force. The first step would involve the swift approval of a resolution authorizing the deployment of an African force to train the Malian army, which put up virtually no resistance to the Islamists, and would express an intention to conduct offensive operations in the north, but only if it is satisfied with a refined military plan -- known as a concept of operations -- that would be due to the council within 45 days. A second resolution, according to the U.S. plan, would authorize offensive operations in northern Mali, as well as a follow-up effort to stabilize a reconquered northern Mali. It remains unclear what military role the United States would play in the counterterrorism operation.
America's diplomatic caution reflects misgivings about the African military plan, questions about who will participate in -- and pay for -- the mission. But it is also stems from American legal constraints. The United States is prohibited by law from providing financial support to Mali's government because the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Toure was toppled in a military coup in March. Thus it is pressing Mali's interim government to hold presidential elections, initially scheduled for April 2013, before sending foreign armies into Mali to confront the Islamists.
"Mali needs now more than ever a strong democratic government to restore its democratic tradition and provide the strong leadership necessary to negotiate a political agreement with northern rebels, reform its security sector, and lead a military intervention in the north to restore and maintain Mali's territorial integrity," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said last week.
At the Security Council on Monday, Rice said the effort to confront al Qaeda in Mali will require a broader effort by governments in the region to combat transitional crime, including drug trafficking, and the proliferation of terror organizations. "The rise of violent extremism and organized crime across the region is aggravating the situation in Mali," she told the council.
Rice said there is a need to pursue a multifaceted strategy, including political, humanitarian, environmental, and military pieces, to address the crisis. "Given Mali's delicate situation, we must be careful to address the crises in Mali without further destabilizing the entire region," she said. "Any military intervention in Mali must thus be designed to minimize the operation's humanitarian impact and the impact on human rights." But she provided few insights into what role Washington would play in support of the counterinsurgency operation in Mali.
France agrees that the U.N. needs to pursue a coordinated strategy that addresses many of the country's political, humanitarian, and environmental needs. But it also believes that yesterday's ouster of Prime Minister Diarra only highlights the need for swift military action. "These developments underline the need for the rapid deployment of an African stabilization force," France's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Philippe Lalliot, told reporters on Tuesday, according to Reuters.
The crisis in Mali underscores the rising threat of anti-Western Islamic militancy in North Africa and the Sahel. But it also marks the clearest evidence of blowback from the U.S.-backed military campaign that toppled Qaddafi.
Early this year, Touareg separatists -- many of whom served as Qaddafi's mercenaries -- fighting under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, struck an alliance with Islamist groups, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Ansar al-Dine, to fulfill their long-held dream of establishing an independent Touareg nation. Backed by an influx of weapons from the Libyan war, they quickly defeated the national army, triggering a military coup in the capital, Bamako, by younger officers angered that the government had not supplied them with enough military equipment to meet the fight in the north. But the Touaregs were quickly forced out of the way by their Islamist allies, who had little interest in securing Touareg independence.
The movement now claims control of more than half of the country's territory, including the key northern cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. U.N. and African mediators are trying to persuade more moderate factions to break ranks with militants linked to al Qaeda. While there have been some statements, U.N. diplomats say it is too early to say whether those efforts are succeeding or not.
Traore Rokiatou Guikine, Mali's minister for African integration, warned the U.N. Security Council last week that foreign Islamists are taking advantage of the security vacuum in northern Mali to consolidate their gains. "The deployment of the force is urgent," she said. "Terrorists have stepped up their activities and are seeking reinforcements to carry out jihad from Mali. Mali is on the way to becoming a breeding ground for terrorists."
The government in Bamako has received firm backing from France, South Africa, India, and other council members for a military response. "The situation in Mali requires an urgent response from the international community," South Africa's U.N. envoy Baso Sangqu said on Monday. "If left unchecked, the situation in the Sahel threatens to spread and affect the countries in the region and beyond, and pose a threat to international peace and security," said Sangqu.
France, meanwhile, favors the adoption of a single Security Council resolution authorizing a foreign intervention force by Christmas, although it could be many months before it is ever sent to Mali.
The French favor what they call a "two track" approach -- promoting a democratic political transition while training Malian security forces to conduct offensive military operations. Unlike the Americans, however, French officials believe it is illogical for the military operations to be put off until after Mali's presidential election, particularly as Malians living in territory seized by the Islamists would not be able to vote. "Do you think that al Qaeda will be securing voting booths for a fair election?" asked one Security Council diplomat.
And with Diarra now removed from office by the military officers who toppled his predeccesor, the country's political future is now even murkier.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.