How the USA Prevented a Rush to War In Mali

The Security Council unanimously approved a resolution authorizing a multinational force to intervene in northern Mali.

What is not included in the resolution is as significant as what made it past negotiations.

For several weeks the French have been pushing for an agressive resolution that would authorize an African led international force to intervene in Mali to root out Islamist rebels in the north and help the Malian army assert control over the area. France would model this mission on the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is African led, but UN supported. Like AMISOM, France wanted to fund the Mali mission through voluntary contributions of member states as opposed to through the regular budget system.

US Ambassador Susan Rice famously called this plan “crap.” She had a point. The chances of success of this strategy are low. On the funding question, there is no way that the US Congress would approve an extra line item funding for this mission, and there is little chance that the rest of the world would pick up the US portion of the tab. Beyond the technical point of how to fund this proposed mission is the question of whether or not 3,500 ECOWAS troops are ready to go toe-to-toe in desert combat with battle hardened Islamist militants? That is unclear at best.

Finally, the Malian army is in shambles and the political situation in Bamako is as tenuous as ever. Just this month, the military putschists who precipitated this crisis mounted a second coup to depose an interim prime minister they had previously supported. The just-passed Security Council resolution strongly condemns this coup, but the Malian ambassador to the UN told journalists that the ouster of the prime minister was necessary. The point is, Malian politics is schizophrenic and there is no clear sense of on who’s behalf the international community would be intervening.

The USA is not alone in sharing these concerns. The International Crisis Group, Refugees International and the Secretary General all believe that international intervention in Mali may be necessary, but have warned that an intervention that does not address these questions has a low probability of success. The US position all along has been to prioritize political reconciliation in Bamako and between the Malian government and ethnic Tuarag separatists who have legitimate grievances.  Meanwhile, the international community can use that time to train and equip ECOWAS and the Malian army for potential battle against hardline Islamist rebels in the North.

The resolution that just passed by-and-large reflects these concerns. The resolution authorizes an ECOWAS-led force, known as the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA). The resolution gives AFISMA a mandate to train the Malian army and “use all necessary means” to fight rebel groups in the north. However, it requests that the Secretary General report back every 60 days on the readiness of AFISMA to mount a successful offensive operation in the north. It also requests that prior to launching the offensive, AFISMA shares its plans with the Security Council to certify that its forces are up to the task.

This falls short of requiring a second resolution to authorize an offensive operation in northern Mali, which is what the USA initially wanted, but it does put the breaks on any swift action — which was the end goal the USA had been pursuing all along.

The key question of how this mission will be funded has been kicked down the road at least 30 days. The resolution calls on the Secretary General to present some funding options for the mission, but it is clear that mounting a voluntarily funded operation will not fly for the Americans, so at least part of the costs will probably come from the typical UN peacekeeping budget plans.

Importantly, the French ambassador the UN downplayed the military significance of this resolution, saying it is not a declaration of war; rather he emphasized the need for political reconciliation in Mali.   This is a telling sign of the convergence of the international community around a single, coherent strategy for Mali. For now, it looks like the Ambassador Rice successfully put the breaks on a rush toward military intervention, but did leave the door wide open for a future military offensive in Northern Mali. The key point is that this offensive will not happen for quite some time –and that is a good thing.