France wants to pull out its troops from Mali in March. From then on, West African troops will help Mali's army maintain security in the whole country. But critics fear that the country is ill-prepared.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has announced plans to pull his country's troops out of Mali in March. But Mali expert Roland Marchal questions whether France can pull out its troops from Mali in a few weeks. The situation in the northern part of the country is still by not means stable, he told a conference organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin. No one knows how the rebels will react and whether they'll try to regain the land that they have lost in recent weeks. It is also likely that some groups of fighters will withdraw to unstable neighboring countries. And there was also the risk that Islamist insurgents could infiltrate refugee camps and disrupt the peace there.
"It is not enough to win the battle, the war must be won," said Marchal: the French military intervention may not have been well thought out, but he still couldn't see any alternative at the moment.
German trainers to head to Mali
Marchal is also skeptical about plans to help rebuild the Malian army. Germany has said it will take part in this task, and it's sending 40 experts who will help train and modernize Mali's military. German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière announced that the legal requirements for the operation should be ready at the beginning of March. An advance team is already in Mali to explore the conditions.
Roland Marchal believes that the European trainers have a difficult task ahead of them: "We need to build up a Malian army that safeguards human rights, doesn't take revenge, and is not dependent on militias."
It needs to be an army that respects republican values, the laws of war and its country's legislation. But that could take years.
At the moment, the political discussion in France is limited to the military dimension of the intervention in Mali. But stabilizing Mali politically and economically has greater significance for the country's future. Interim President Dioncounda Traoré, who came to power after a military coup last year, plans to hold general elections on July 31. But Roland Marchal wonders whether that will happen.
A country of many crises
Malian sociologist Ismael Sory Maiga also fears that it will be a long time before his country can recover from the activities of the rebels in the north and the French military intervention. The crisis in Mali goes deeper than Europe and the US want to realize, he insists, adding it goes well beyond military questions. It's not one crisis but several - and they are destabilizing the country on all levels. The main crisis is the complete loss of trust between the government and the people which led to a military coup last year. Malians believe that their country's ruling class - the government, parliament, the administration and the justice system - is corrupt.
"There's a political-financial complex, which has taken control of the country in order to push its own interests," says Maiga.
Politicians and business people have done everything to make themselves rich. They've even been working with the kidnappers of foreigners and negotiated ransoms, turning kidnapping and smuggling into a lucrative business in northern Mali. At the same time, the power of the traditional rulers has been diminished, replaced by small militias that have created what he calls a "Mafia-like system." The collapse of the state in northern Mali has in turn paved the way for Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters who have come from neighboring countries, especially Libya.
Now, there is the risk that the old corrupt system could be re-established, with the protection of the military intervention.
Restoration in Bamako
German journalist Charlotte Wiedemann, who has traveled widely in Mali and West Africa, also fears that things could go back to how they were in Mali. She told the conference that, in order to strengthen democracy and create peace in Mali, drastic internal reform needs to be carried out. Above all, democracy needs to be strengthened. This could be done without outside intervention. Mali has enough democratic-minded intellectuals, who have withdrawn from public life in recent years. They could return to public life to push democracy. But Mali cannot be considered a failed state.
Rebuilding the economy
French expert Roland Marchal is less confident
"Mali is extremely poor and the north of the country is even poorer," he said.
The priority should be fixing the economy, especially in the north, which has been more seriously affected by the unrest. The locals have mainly survived on smuggling. People, weapons, counterfeit cigarettes and drugs are transported along the ancient trade routes across the Sahara. Even regular goods have been smuggled, Marchal notes - "legal goods which are traded illegally."
The European Union has to ensure that trans-Saharan commerce is not criminalized entirely so that the people of Northern Mali are not deprived of their livelihood. Instead, it has to come up with an ambitious long-term economic reconstruction plan to stabilize Mali and with it the entire Sahel.