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Western Allies Shouldn't Make the Same Mistakes in Mali - ORG Comment in Broadcast Media and Newspapers

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Vera Evertz
24 January 2013


'Conflict prevention is not done with battalions of troops or armed drones in the sky.' Photo: Reuters



BBC World Service Newsday interview on 24 January 2013 with Ben Zala, Programme Director of Oxford Research Group's Sustainable Security Programme. Ben Zala talks about the problems revolving around the French-led intervention in Mali and the marginalisation of the North of the country, including the Touareg people.


The below article by Ben Zala was originally published in 'The Age' newspaper, Australia, on 24 January 2013. The story has also been picked up by Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times, WA Today, etc. 


Diplomacy, not military intervention, must lead the next chapter in the war on terror.

The military intervention in Mali has many overtones of the early stages of the so-called ''war on terror''. Announcing the invasion of Afghanistan, US President George Bush talked about the need for patience ''in the months ahead'' and reassured the military that ''your mission is defined; your objectives are clear''. As time went on, the mission, the objectives and eventually success all turned out to be elusive for Western forces - the best trained and equipped militaries in the world. And, of course, it was May 1, 2003, when Bush gave his now infamous ''mission accomplished'' speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln some 8½ years before US troops would leave Iraq after a prolonged and bloody insurgency.

Now the French government has begun the intervention in Mali with talk of minimal troops on the ground, an emphasis on early air strikes and a deployment that would last, according to the Foreign Minister, ''a matter of weeks''.

But, echoing the earlier US-led interventions, the headlines are quickly becoming dominated by the rhetoric, in the words of President Francois Hollande, of a ''fight against terrorism'' that will last ''as long as necessary''. Not only this, but the French mission is now to ensure that ''Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory''.

All of this with an initial deployment of 800 French troops, which has already grown to more than 2000, bolstered eventually by an Economic Community of West African States force of about 3000. Yet ECOWAS members have been reluctant to commit any serious numbers to a conflict which they can see is unlikely to be over any time soon.

The key question now is whether France, Britain (whose Prime Minister is now talking of a ''generational struggle'' against al-Qaeda inspired groups across North Africa and the Sahel), the United States and others will be able to learn and apply the lessons from the first chapter of the war on terror.

The first chapter, which largely played out across the Middle East and Central Asia, was characterised by reactive military responses to the symptoms of global insecurity.

If the second chapter of the response to transnational terrorism and Islamist-inspired insurgency, which appears likely to shift to the African continent, is to be less violent, costly and drawn-out, it will need to change all three characteristics.

First, it will need to shift the majority of the emphasis in policy terms from reaction to prevention. The French forces were dragged in before they or their African allies were ready, to an area in which the militants have been laying fuel and ammunition caches for months, and now face urban warfare in which aerial raids are of little use.

The carefully timed Algerian hostage crisis has ensured that other Western states are unable to stay out of the fight for long.

The ideal outcome for the Islamist fighters is a repeat of the Western approach in Afghanistan and Iraq in which the sole reliance on military force provokes a blowback from the local population, ensuring a prolonged and messy ground war.

Second, non-military solutions must play a larger role. Conflict prevention is not done with battalions of troops or armed drones hovering in the sky but with diplomacy, development and building sustainable political institutions.

And third, futile attempts to throw force at the symptoms of global insecurity will need to be swapped for genuine attempts at addressing the underlying drivers. For example, in Mali, the original Tuareg rebellion, which was later hijacked by Ansar Dine and the other Islamist groups, is driven by a fierce sense of disenfranchisement and resentment.

If Mali is to become the safe, terrorist-free country envisaged by Hollande, there is simply no escaping the fact that the marginalisation of the north of Mali must be addressed.

Similarly, while bringing to justice the leaders of terrorist groups may be a legitimate tactic, the longer-term strategy must be to remove the incentives to join such groups in the first place.

From Mali to Nigeria to Somalia to Zanzibar, the al-Qaeda franchise still holds considerable appeal to a cohort of angry young men. Ignoring the reasons why this is so failed in Afghanistan and Iraq, is still failing in parts of Pakistan, Yemen and Syria, and it will undoubtedly fail in Africa.

If the intervention in Mali really is the beginning of the next chapter in the war on terror, it is time for a radically different approach to political violence if we are to avoid repeating the failures of the first. Simply reacting to the symptoms of insecurity with military force is a deeply flawed strategy, and we do not need to try this for it to be demonstrated again in Mali.

Ben Zala is the Director of Oxford Research Group's Sustainable Security programme.


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