The United Nations Security Council approved the deployment of an African force to retake northern Mali from extremists linked to al-Qaeda along with training and equipment for Malian soldiers.
The resolution, drafted by France as a response to the Islamist threat in a former colony and approved unanimously yesterday, doesn’t specify the size of the intervention force. African leaders have requested 3,300 troops.
Benchmarks for action, including adequate training, were added after the U.S. expressed concern about the risk of dispatching unprepared troops to battle hardened Islamist fighters entrenched in an arid area the size of France.
Military intervention won’t happen before September, as Mali heads into the dry season, according to military planners including UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous. In addition to the weather, they cited the need to build up the rundown Malian army and a desire to allow time for a political dialogue to end a protracted constitutional crisis.
“The plan is verging on the unworkable: a mixed force of African troops with limited resources and then specially trained Malian troops to take on opponents that are quite prepared,” Richard Gowan, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said in an interview. “It’s quite possible this will not work on the ground.”
Mali plunged into chaos after a military coup in March left a power vacuum in Bamako, the capital. That enabled Touareg separatists -- many of them former mercenaries for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi until his ousting -- to join with Islamist rebels and seize the northern half of Mali, including the ancient city of Timbuktu.
“We are happy that the resolution has been approved and we want to thank the Malian, French and UN authorities that they have given support for an operation to liberate the north,” Amadou Goita, president of Front pour la Democratie et la Republique, a coalition of political parties, said by phone from Bamako, the capital.
“What we don’t understand is, why do we have to wait so long before our country will be liberated? People are suffering unimaginably. An intervention should happen as quickly as possible,” he said.
The presidency’s spokesman, Diarra Diakite, said the Foreign Ministry will probably issue an official statement reacting to the approval later today.
While there was no formal discussion of Western nations sending forces, the French are already running covert missions to wear down the Islamists and lay the groundwork for intervention, according to two UN officials who asked not to be named because the issue is classified.
“It would be naïve to think that France and the U.S. do not already have military assets in the region doing what such forces do, in readiness for an order to escalate their operations,” said Jolyon Ford, senior analyst at Oxford Analytica, a U.K.-based consulting firm.
The language of the Security Council resolution was left vague because of uncertainty about whether Mali will be in a position 10 months from now to head a military operation and what the multinational African force would look like.
Nigeria will likely form the backbone of the African-led force with countries such as Senegal, Niger and Chad expected to join in. Neighboring Mauritania, viewed by Western powers as having among the best desert fighters, has said it doesn’t want to be involved. Algeria shares that reluctance.
“The Algerians have a strong belief in non-interference and their military has never operated outside of Algerian soil,” said Kader Abderrahim, a researcher at Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Studies.
Also unresolved is funding for an operation that may cost about $250 million. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said contributions should be voluntary. European Union countries are struggling with a financial crisis at home.
“Everyone is trying to do this on the cheap,” said Gowan.
Once one of Western Africa’s more stable democracies, Mali is the focus of anti-Western Islamic militancy that Western diplomats have said could spread throughout the region.
After brushing aside the Touareg insurgents, at least three groups of Islamists, including Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, have tightened their grip on northern Mali and are imposing a strict version of Shariah, or Islamic law, on the region.
Mali’s new prime minister, Diango Cissoko, vowed to seek unity as he was sworn into the job Dec. 12, replacing Cheick Modibo Diarra, who was forced out by the army in a struggle for control of the nation.
The new leader, a 63-year-old former justice minister, will have the task of bringing together a fractured political class, an army that overthrew his predecessor and the rebel groups in the landlocked nation’s north.
“International action will be dependent on the political and security developments in Bamako, and the way things evolve on the ground in the north,” said Gilles Yabi, West Africa director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “The issue of the north can’t be separated from the question of stability in Bamako, the influence of the junta and the condition of the Malian army.”
Mali, which vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-biggest gold producer, also needs to organize elections to replace the interim post-coup government. The nation’s economy is forecast to contract 4.5 percent this year before growing 3 percent in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund.
-- With assistance from Gregory Viscusi in Paris. Editors: Larry Liebert, Michael Shepard, Emily Bowers, John Bowker