The current conflict in Mali has far reaching ramifications that can be traced back several centuries. To attempt to explain all causes in a detailed manner is a highly difficult task and may perhaps be the work of future historians. Nonetheless, a few things can be said about the question of foreign intervention.
The conflict has many actors. First, there has been a Tuareg rebellion in the north part of the country for the past few years. The Tuareg is a group that has been fighting to seize control over Mali and has been linked with Islamist groups and also with Al-Qaeda. They have recently seized control of most of the north of the country. The rebellion has been gathering momentum; some people even suggest that weapons have been given to the rebels since the Libyan conflict. Secondly, there was a coup in early 2012 led by Captain Amadou Sanogo. The junta took control over the prior government, since it argued that it was losing ground against the rebels. However, the army was ill-equipped and divided, which did not match the fire power of the rebels.
Foreign powers have different views and perspectives. The French have claimed that if they had not intervened Mali would now be controlled by the rebels. France’s president, Francois Hollande, has declared the necessity to avoid Mali falling into the hands of “terrorist groups”. The initial air strike and logistic support has now changed to also include ground fighting. The United States has declared that it cannot allow Mali to become a safe-haven to Al- Qaeda-related cells, but it is not particularly convinced of a foreign intervention. Canada has sent transportation support. According to the CBC, “Canada has committed to one transport plane for one week ending on Thursday. To date, the C-17 has been involved in daily shuttles delivering heavy equipment to Mali’s capital, Bamako, from a military base in France”.
The neighbouring African countries have been concerned that if Mali falls into rebel hands there would be a domino effect and the possibility of expanded rebel power. Therefore, they have sent numerous troops to support the French led intervention. They are also anxious about the possibility of the Tuareg rebels inspiring other insurgencies, which would make the region very unstable.
The mainstream media has covered much of the conflict. However, no reporters have been allowed on the front since it has been considered a dangerous zone. The French have advanced, but the rebels still dominate much of the north. Another source of concern is the fact that the rebels seemed to melt with the civilian population when the French troops arrived, making it extremely difficult to be identified.
Leaving aside the numerous causes and ramifications of the conflict, should foreign powers intervene? Should ethnic groups such as the Tuareg be considered terrorist groups? These questions do not have a clear answer, but they need to be addressed. In the context of past interventions, such as in Libya and the current situation in Syria, foreign intervention has been central to the debate. Foreign intervention tends to be defined by its military nature, and these foreign powers form part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Much of the debate about whether or not to intervene centres around the battle against the possible creation of terrorist nests. There is a sense that western powers are fighting rebels in the name of freedom and democracy. However, in many cases the causes of these conflicts are overlooked and they tend not to be solved by any military action.
Dr. Paul Shaffer, associate professor in the department of International Development Studies and director of the Trent in Ghana program, has done extensive work on poverty and gender in parts of West Africa. Shaffer highlighted the complexity of the long-standing conflict and how complicated evaluating a foreign intervention is. He argues that there are divisions among the Tuareg and groups are highly fluid, making the task of identifying them difficult. In terms of looking at the various arguments in favour or against an intervention, Shaffer believes that one of the main downfalls of the French intervention is its colonial past. He asserts that even though the foreign intentions may or may not be the purest and the outcome may or may not be positive, the colonial past cannot be ignored as if history did not matter. Shaffer argues that colonial powers have “skeletons in their closet” and their intervention upon former colonies will have colonial connotations attached to them.