In the past few weeks, the French government has thankfully intervened in northern Mali, where Islamist insurgents had seized control, imposed Sharia law, and destroyed countless cultural artifacts. Now, however, France has indicated that it wishes to swiftly withdraw its military forces from the country, but such a move would be ill advised. The Malian capital, Bamako, has neither the resources nor the credibility to govern the region and would be helpless to combat the ethnic tensions and Islamist insurgents that would soon resurface.
The traumatic violence that Mali has seen in recent months is largely the result of ethnic tensions that Bamako was unable to combat. Ethnically, the northern stretches of the country—called Azawad by locals—are populated by the Tuaregs, who are a Berber people completely unrelated to the Niger-Congo ethnic groups of the south. Further, these southern groups take part in an age-old tradition called “cousinage,” whereby each group is bound to the others by ancient familial ties. The Tuaregs, however, exist completely outside of this system.
Already thus alienated from the rest of the country, the Tuaregs also live a lifestyle very distinct from that of their southern neighbors. A largely nomadic people, they claim that they are often ignored by the more agricultural south. Azawad is stricken with horrendous levels of poverty, even when compared to other regions of one of the poorest countries on Earth, and Azawadis have often claimed that Bamako is callous to their plight. As such, they have called for either independence or greater representation in the Malian government ever since Mali gained its independence from France.
When Tuareg refugees streamed into Mali from Libya, bringing nationalist sentiments and heavy weaponry with them, the people of Azawad therefore embraced their calls for independence. They aligned themselves with Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine, which had broken off from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and soon unilaterally declared independence. Once independence had been declared, however, the Islamist factions quickly moved to seize control of the region from Tuareg nationalist groups. They took city after city, imposing harsh Sharia law and destroying the shrines of Gao and Timbuktu. Within weeks, Azawad had become an Islamist shadow state where human rights were desecrated, adulterers were stoned, and women were attacked. The Malian armed forces attempted to launch a military campaign to retake the region, but they were rooted out by the Islamists and all but obliterated.
Southern Mali, meanwhile, was experiencing its own version of tumult. In March 2012, the military staged a coup, claiming that only through deposing the civilian government could they effectively pacify the country. This coup was only the first of several undemocratic changes of government, and Bamako soon lost its reputation for democracy and human rights. None of the subsequent governments was able to quell the rebellion, and Mali descended into corruption and civil strife.
When France ultimately decided to intervene in the region, it did so specifically because Bamako could not handle the situation itself. Today, Mali still lacks a competent standing army, and its government remains weak, authoritarian, and corrupt. Furthermore, both the Malian government and the Tuareg rebels are still fighting for leverage toward possible negotiations. Even though the Islamists have been driven out of Azawad, the factors that allowed them to seize control—ethnic tensions, an Islamist presence in West Africa, and an ineffective government in Bamako—remain in play. The government of Mali, itself a key component of the country’s problems, cannot be expected to ameliorate them on its own.
If there is to be any peace in the region, therefore, France must maintain a peacekeeping force in Mali. If France leaves the region as it plans to do, it will leave a power vacuum that would soon be filled by the Islamist forces remaining in West Africa, who have already begun reasserting their presence in the country. Even barring that, the tensions between Azawad and the Malian government would inevitably lead to conflict. The United Nations has indicated that it may send a peacekeeping force as an alternative, but such endeavors have a long history of failure: Somalia, Srebrenica, and Rwanda stand as testaments to that.
There are, of course, several reasons why France would be reluctant to maintain a long-term military presence in northern Mali—financial cost, risk to French soldiers, and accusations of neo-colonialism among them. In exerting its military strength to liberate the region, however, France has already intimately involved itself in the situation. Unless the French government wants its efforts to be in vain, they will have to maintain a presence in Azawad, as peacekeepers, as nation-builders, and as bulwarks against the regional specter of radical Islamism.
John A. Griffin ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Stoughton Hall.