Mali's post-coup transition in the South and the separatist rebellion in the North are two distinct but interrelated crises. Neither can be ignored. But the current planned interventions seem muddled, says Todd Moss, vice president for programs and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.
The south of Mali appears destined for a prolonged and ambiguous political transition that will eventually get to new elections and put the military back in barracks. At the same time, Mali's interim government claims it is readying a military campaign to retake the North. Meanwhile, the regional ECOWAS bloc has pledged 3,300 troops and the U.S. and France are considering providing logistical support to this effort while also considering options to deny any save haven to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
This all has the makings of a debacle. Firstly, Mali cannot retake the North militarily. The security forces have never really controlled the North, had been losing badly to the rebellion prior to the March 22 coup, were easily over-run after the coup, and are probably even weaker today. This is just not a plausible option. ECOWAS cannot retake the North either. Regional troops could probably support a police or peacekeeping function in the South and help to implement a political transition. They are not suited to fighting either the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) or Islamists. Even with heavy outside support, it is not clear how ECOWAS could do more than, at best, hold a few Northern towns. They have no real capacity to hunt AQIM or defeat the Tuareg rebels on their own territory.
Fears of a broader terrorist link-up are probably overblown. Tuareg nationalism and Jihadist extremism are incompatible. The long-term political goals of the Tuareg are misaligned with the aims of AQIM and other extremist groups. Although they are currently making common cause against the Malian state and foreign intervention, a smart policy could drive a wedge between them. In fact, doing so is probably a necessary condition for long-term stability.
A solution to the North requires a political deal short of independence. Any sustainable peace must address the underlying grievances of the Tuareg and other groups, but likely also will have to maintain Mali's territorial integrity. The outlines of such a deal are already well-known, but Southern credibility is lacking. Previous peace deals--such as the 1992 National Pact (as part of the 1991 Tamanrasset Accord) and the Algiers Accord in 2006--contained provisions for special status, limited autonomy, and increased investment in the North. In hindsight, the main reason these previous deals failed was because Bamako was unable to deliver their end of the bargain, partly because the government was politically exposed in the South and under fire for being too accommodating. Recall the junta's initial justification for the 2012 coup was that the war against the Tuareg wasn't being prosecuted with enough vigour.
A credible new government in Bamako is many months away. It is not clear how the transition--even if elections are held quickly and well, and Captain Sonogo departs--will take less than at least another year. Moreover, a new government will probably not be overly empowered to cut a deal. Whatever government emerges, it is highly unlikely that it will be sympathetic to Northern grievances or have strong incentives to find a lasting solution. But the West won't wait. If the North is not resolved quickly, the U.S. and France will likely take the view, that they have no choice but to conduct counterterrorism operations from the air. A recent Washington Post article detailed growing US surveillance in the Sahel. It's a short step to arm planes or drones for kinetic operations.
All these assumptions and interlocking conditions, suggest some cognitive dissonance among policymakers--and a serious sequencing problem. Firstly, a 'fight-first' strategy cannot work. Neither Bamako nor ECOWAS can live up to its sabre rattling and I suspect the MNLA and others know it. South first, then North is the inescapable sequencing. If a political deal is an essential part of the overall approach, then how can this happen without a credible government in Bamako?
What should outsiders be doing? A practical strategy would focus on three lines. Firstly, there should be pressure on political actors in Bamako to accelerate the transition and accept meaningful autonomy in the North. Second, outside actors could contain any chaos in the North while driving a wedge between separatists and Islamists. Thirdly, they could push for a lasting negotiated peace and then support its implementation more robustly than in the past.