It’s a confusing situation in landlocked Mali. Confusing for anyone who doesn’t know the West African country. And confusing even for those who do know Mali. That’s because, despite some turbulence in Mali’s post-colonial history, the country’s multiple ethnicities have lived peacefully and with a proud sense of Malian identity since independence in 1960.
But for the past year, that unity has slowly evaporated. It started in 2011 with the revival of an ethnic Touareg rebellion for autonomy in Mali’s north. Then after the Arab Spring, extremists and lots of guns began flowing into northern Mali from Libya. To muddy things further now, some of those Islamists also happen to be Touareg. But their grievances are not the same as those of the Malian Touareg rebels.
Then in March 2012, soldiers in Mali’s capital, Bamako, overthrew the elected president because they felt he wasn’t doing enough to stem the Touareg rebellion. While the eyes of coup leaders were on the Touareg rebellion, well-armed Islamist players easily conquered the northern cities of Timbuktu and Gao, imposing sharia law there and across the north. They destroyed a precious ancient library in Timbuktu and began chopping off the hands of criminals. And they continued their advance south of the Niger River.
On January 11, 2013, France intervened to stop the Islamists from advancing, and to assist Malian troops in their ground offensive. The great fear in Mali is the fall of Bamako. It would be like a repeat of the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan in 1996: If the extremists take the capital, it’s game over.
The immediate goal of the intervention is to stop the Islamists from taking Bamako, and ultimately to take away their safe haven in northern Mali. Algeria is also in the news because, though they did not want to take part in France’s intervention in Mali, they allowed France to use its airspace for the operation. The militants who staged the assault on a BP-run natural gas plant in Algeria, taking hostages, say it’s a reprisal for the French mission.
That’s the background. We wanted to know your questions about this rapidly unfolding and complex drama. We received several questions from readers. The BBC’s Defense and Diplomatic Correspondent Jonathan Marcus offer these responses.
1. Why aren’t other countries (through the United Nations) offering support to France? Not necessarily “boots on the ground,” but other support?
A number of other countries are offering support to the French. A nearly 4,000-strong West African Force is slowly beginning to deploy. It will be under Nigerian command with contributions already pledged by a number of countries including Nigeria; Niger; Burkina Faso, Togo and Senegal. Britain, Belgium, Canada and Denmark have pitched in with small numbers of transport aircraft. Plans for a European Union training mission for the Malian Army are being speeded up. Nonetheless in terms of modern and effective fighting forces France is the only country with boots on the ground and crucially with combat air power as well.
2. What is the reason France has deployed troops? What are their interests?
France as the former colonial power has a long-standing relationship with Mali and important economic ties to the region. It was specifically asked for urgent assistance when Islamist and rebel forces seemed on their way southwards towards the capital Bamako, and Socialist President Francois Hollande – even though he has wished to turn the page on France’s traditional military role of intervention in Africa — clearly felt compelled to act. In broader terms wider instability in the region and the rise of elements linked to al-Qaida and international Jihad is also of serious concern to France and the West in general; The fear is that ungoverned spaces in Mali could provide a launch-pad for jihadist attacks well beyond West Africa.
3. Is the conflict in any way fueled by foreigners seeking a safe haven to get what they had in Afghanistan and Sudan before that?
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) is made up of a variety of disparate groups operating across borders in the region. Its origins lie in Algeria. But the instability in Mali is in part related to events in Libya. The overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi opened up weapons stores and many African mercenaries who had fought for the Libyan regime returned to Mali and were instrumental in pushing forward the Touareg rebellion in the North. They were then largely supplanted by Islamist forces.
4. What is al-Qaeda’s involvement?
AQIM is a “franchise” of the core al-Qaida drawing upon grievances across the region and offering a typical mix of criminality and jihadist activity.