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The Rebellion in Mali

January 18, 2013

In January of 2012, a rebellion began in the north of the African nation of Mali. Ethnic Tuareg rebels began attacking towns, and in April of 2012 declared the “independence of Azawad,” proclaiming that the northern city of Gao was the capital of this new country. Roundabout this time, however, another group, Ansar Dine, an Islamist group affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,  declared themselves to be against this rebellion, moreover against all “revolutions not in the name of Islam.”   In July, Ansar Dine declared that ancient mosques in the city of Timbuktu were “idolatrous” and began destroying UNESCO-listed holy sites in the city.

Fast-forward to the present.

On January 11, 2013, French soldiers intervened on behalf of the government of the former colony to the tune of airstrikes against heavily-armed Islamist fighters. This turn of events follows after months of instability in the land-locked African nation, wherein Islamists in the north would carry out public whippings, stonings, and even amputations in the region they controlled. When the Islamists decided to move south of what was a de facto line between the Islamist north and the government-controlled south, France intervened.

On January 16, French soldiers moved north from Bamako to engage the insurgents in ground conflict. Since then, there have been reports of street fighting in the strategic town of Diabali between French and Malian soldiers on the one side and insurgents on the other.  The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian said that at present, around 800 French soldiers are in Mali, but that this number should be strengthened to around 2500.

“I believe that we are very pressed for time,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel after a discussion with Alassane Outtara, the president of the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, current chair of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). The German government has, like the United States and Great Britain, pledged logistic support to the French effort in Mali, promising air-transport to the French soldiers. Over the last weekend, French airstrikes have been targeted against training camps, supply depots, and insurgent convoys headed south.

On Sunday, January 13, the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius,  claimed that the French mission was not just to stop the rebels from pressing further into government-controlled land, but to restore Mali’s territorial integrity, including the rebel-controlled north – an area twice the size of Germany. This represents an opportunity for the European Union, recently troubled by strains between Germany and France  and the possibility of Britain leaving the EU, to show some cooperation. Even if not in an economic sense, this cooperation reflects another of the tenets on which the EU is bound together, namely common defense and foreign policy. Germany, for example, which declined to join other NATO and EU allies in the measures taken against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, hopes that their pledge of logistic support in this new Malian conflict,  as well as  two Transall cargo planes to fly in soldiers from the ECOWAS region, will suffice as a commitment to common defense in the EU.

Strong questions remain, however, as to the specific nature of how such “common defense” should be manifested. German involvement in NATO operations is a relatively recent phenomenon; 1993 marked the first year in which the German armed forces were deployed outside of their country since the Second World War, and every instance of a use of force since then has been a difficult question to answer for Germany as it defines its new military role in the world. This question is but one of many that can be asked in relation to the Mali conflict.

France’s colonial past also brings up questions of the rightness or wrongness of intervention in Mali, but my guess is that in a world where hostages can be taken at a natural gas-field, quarrels about the ethical ramifications of a colonial past come second to the preservation of peace, order and stability in a post 9/11 world.

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