Snowballs in North Africa: Mali's long-term unintended consequences

France's adventure in Mali is both a result, and potential cause, of instability, and highlights once again the often-forgotten issues surrounding foreign military intervention

For now, French Prime Minister Francois Hollande may well consider France’s intervention in Mali a success. French airstrikes and ground troops halted the rebel advance toward Mali’s capital and weakened rebel control of the North. The war has also boosted Hollande personally, helping reverse perceptions of him as timid and indecisive and granting him public support just as he faced sagging approval ratings and opposition to his signature policies. As any leader through history can attest, there is no surer way to guarantee public acquiescence and adoration than with a well-timed war – at least in the short term.

Yet the virtue of wars and military interventions cannot be measured by poll numbers or temporary military success. One need only think of this century’s wars, where the euphoric removal of authoritarian regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya was followed by extended chaos. Likewise, the case of Mali demonstrates again that military interventions are never quick, cheap and easy, as they are so often sold to the public, and inevitably spiral past their original aims into deepening and widening involvement.

Hollande has said France is only in Mali to “protect a friendly country” and fight terrorism, and implied the operation would last mere weeks. The war has already created a growing refugee crisis, however, and there are reports of civilian abuse by government forces. Moreover, France has steadily pledged more and more troops, and the unpreparedness of African troops means it will likely be embroiled in the conflict far longer. If Hollande truly aims to ensure stability in Mali, and not simply launch the war-equivalent of a photo-op, then French involvement will necessarily extend well past the end of any fighting.  

After all, the Malian civil war which necessitated French intervention – and the Algerian hostage crisis which has left at least 23 hostages dead – are both examples of the consequences of postwar instability, being partly products of an earlier intervention: NATO’s war in Libya. True, discontent and tensions had been brewing in Mali for decades. But the influx of arms and Tuareg fighters from Libya, suddenly released from Qaddafi’s employ, sparked Mali’s rebellion and gave Algerian militants pushed south into Mali the capacity to push back. Foreign powers had apparently planned little for what could or should happen following Qaddafi’s fall.

In addition, the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has stated that there is “no question” the events in Mali are related to America’s counterterrorism in Africa, which drove militants to relocate. These facts are a reminder that actually ‘intervening’ is often a simpler and less important job than ensuring post-intervention stability, particularly difficult when modern technology allows militaries to operate at an arm’s length.

How long now before the Algerian crisis breeds further intervention? Already David Cameron has responded that the threat of terrorism in North Africa “is a global threat” which will “require a global response” decades-long. Panetta has warned that terrorists “will find no sanctuary, no refuge. Not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere.”

And if the Algerian crisis fails to push the US and Britain into further involvement, how long before another crisis succeeds? With Mali having drawn in numerous West African nations militarily, it threatens to further destabilise the region and open the door to more regional terrorism. Just one more incident, such as, say, in Nigeria, a major oil producer dealing with its own Islamist insurgency, would be enough to tip the scales. 

All the ingredients are there to turn Africa into the latest front for the ‘war on terror’. Western policymakers see little daylight between regional militants and global Islamic terrorism. David Cameron called the North African threat “an extremist, Islamist, violent al-Qaida-linked terrorist group, just as we have to deal with in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.” Terrorist experts such as J. Peter Pham and Nora Bensahel see a direct threat to the US from Africa, and Pentagon officials have cited African militants as a potential national security issue. 

Moreover, Africa is already a ‘shadow’ front for American counterterrorism. The US maintains military bases in Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ethiopia, the Seychelles, Kenya and Somalia, from which it runs drone strikes and other operations. In Somalia, where the US runs a Guantanamo-style black site, US air raids have killed around 112 militants and 57 civilians. This is not to mention the numerous African countries which receive American military aid and assistance to combat local terrorists. It would not take much to broaden this currently limited involvement.

So far, despite tenuous links to al-Qaeda, the majority of African militants are regional in outlook and have neither the goal nor the capability of attacking Western countries. In Mali, for instance, the rebellion is made up of several ethnic groups seeking independence, as well as fundamentalist Islamic groups. France’s intervention, and potentially that of others, may convince them the West is their true enemy however. Moreover, expanding the abuses and carnage of the ‘war on terror’ would create further global resentment, fuelling more terrorism. It is a self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling prophecy. 

A foreign intervention into a nation with which the intervening power has only a basic political, cultural, or historical familiarity inevitably has unintended consequences which reverberate well beyond the end of that intervention. Although the Malian conflict appears self-contained for now, just as Libya did, we can only wait to see if that stays true.

Francois Hollande will like the poll numbers now, but he may well look back and ask if they were worth it.