Washington — Even as U.S. and French officials suggest that a United Nations resolution on military intervention in Mali could come by the end of the week, concerns are rising that such action could do far more harm than good.
"Mali is a threat only if you want it to be - there is a real risk of this becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, really radicalising the situation," Michael Shurkin, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation, a Defence Department-aligned think tank in Washington, told a panel discussion here on Tuesday.
"Over the past decade, a very visible U.S. military presence in this region has done much to radicalise the population. While the situation is very concerning at the moment, the sky is not yet falling."
Since a coup in Bamako this past spring, northern Mali has fallen under the rule of overlapping networks of criminals, ethnic militias and Islamists, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which the U.S. Defence Department recently characterised as currently the best funded Al-Qaeda franchise in the world.
In early December, the United States' top military official in Africa, General Carter F. Ham, stated that not only had northern Mali become a safe haven for terrorists, but that AQIM has begun training and financing terror networks in neighbouring countries, including Nigeria.
Currently, the U.S. and France are spearheading a U.N. Security Council Resolution that could pave the way for military intervention by African forces, backed up by French and, potentially, U.S. assistance. The West African regional grouping ECOWAS has 3,300 troops ready to move into northern Mali, while the European Union is interested in supporting a training mission for Malian troops.
U.S. law prohibits Washington from legally backing the Malian military until after elections take place (potentially by April), though on Monday U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated that negotiations are currently afoot at the United Nations to sort through the issue and table a resolution by the end of the week.
For months the U.S. government has pushed against French demands for faster intervention, largely paralleling U.N. caution, which has stated that an interventionist force would not be ready for as much as a year. On Monday, Nuland hinted that the first resolution could be to authorise a training mission, with military action pushed off for now.
Still, broad, coalition-based negotiations have yet to be tried in the current situation. A nascent mediation effort overseen by Burkina Faso began in early December, but several other promised conciliatory measures have yet to materialise.
Potential "race war"
Those warning against quick military action warn of the complexity of the social and physical terrain in northern Mali, and the difficulty of understanding the fluid situation on the ground.
"Lots of people are involved in these groups for a lot of reasons, and very few of them include international jihad against the West," Shurkin said. "When people hear about Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb they automatically think of Osama bin Laden, but that's a very dangerous discourse."
Thus far, much of the planning for any military action has been predicated on the assumption that the multiple armed groups in northern Mali would either splinter or flee ahead of an international intervention. But according to Andrew Lebovich, a Sahel analyst currently in Dakar, Senegal, such occurrences would be extremely difficult to forecast.
"For all the valid concerns about what's going on in northern Mali, there is a lot we don't know about these groups that could have serious impact on resolving the situation and the possible reaction of these groups to any intervention or political solution," he told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a government-supported think tank here, speaking from Dakar.
The complications go well beyond complexities of religious or political belief to include entrenched issues of race and ethnicity. Shurkin and his colleague, Stephanie Pezard, warn that an intervention could ignite a "race war".
In the past, Pezard notes, the worst racial violence in the region has been between Arabs and ethnic Tuareg, both of which define themselves as white, and militias that define themselves as black.
In addition to simply angering locals, the presence of ECOWAS troops could thus be "seen as an aggression by the Tuareg population", she says. "Any attempt to solve the crisis in northern Mali will require us to know with whom exactly we should engage."
In turn, any such uptick in ethnically tinged violence could quickly spread beyond Malian territory. Already, Tuareg populations in Algeria and Niger, for instance, have publicly warned that, in the case of military action endangering their Malian brethren, they would have to get involved.
Most importantly, nearly all analysts agree that, at best, any military action would only offer a short-term solution, unable to even begin to address the deep-seated grievances that have led to repeating cycles of violence in Mali.
In recent days, several humanitarian organisations have made initial estimates that a military intervention in Mali could displace at least 700,000 people. On Tuesday, the U.N. requested 1.6 billion dollars in humanitarian costs in the Sahel for 2013, much of which would be contingent on what happens in Mali.
Meanwhile, the push towards intervention may have hit another obstacle with last week's sudden arrest and forced resignation by the interim prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra.
"This simply points out that the army still plays much too strong a political role in the south," Susanna Wing, an associate professor of political science at Haverford College, said Tuesday. "There will be hesitancy to move forward with any intervention, and instead to continue to push for legitimacy in the south and for the army to really step out of picture."
Likewise, Andrew Lebovich and others are now suggesting that former prime minister Diarra was removed because he was seen as "pushing too much with France to accelerate a military solution" while "the junta was looking for a political situation ... There is now the possibility that there will be another push for a political solution."