China Is Not Ten Feet Tall
How Alarmism Undermines American Strategy
Weeks of antigovernment protests in Mali came to a head on August 18, when a group of mutinous military officers arrested the country’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, and forced him to resign on national television. Many Malians viewed Keïta as uninterested in stemming the decline in social services, rooting out corruption, and stopping the spread of intercommunal and terrorist violence, all while favoring the rise of his son. His fumbled response to the Constitutional Court’s overturning of results in the recent parliamentary elections proved to be the last straw. Although Malian opposition supporters greeted Keïta’s ouster with glee, flooding the streets in celebration, Mali’s international allies did not.
The European Union, France, and the United States quickly condemned the putsch, and the UN Security Council soon followed suit. The African Union declared military coups “something of the past which we cannot accept anymore,” and suspended Mali. Yet these allies are concerned about a power vacuum in Mali that could further destabilize the wider region. They now face the question of how to support a peaceful and constructive outcome of the current crisis.
Mali’s 2015 peace deal with northern rebels, known as the Algiers Accord, needs to remain at the forefront of international efforts—and yet it is in peril of failing. The lack of progress in implementing the agreement fed a sense of stagnation in the lead up to the coup and, because its disarmament and demobilization provisions remain largely unfulfilled, has contributed to Mali’s security crisis. Although the army officers who deposed Keïta have pledged to uphold the accord and facilitate new elections, the ongoing transition still faces numerous challenges, not least of which is the fragile support for the peace deal from the public and in important military and political circles.
Changing course will require Mali’s international allies to shift their approach. If the accord is to help solidify peace and security in Mali, the country’s international allies need to recognize the imperative for them to change their roles in the implementation process. Mali’s partners have not always fulfilled their commitments under the accord. To help save it and support a peaceful transition, now is the time for the international community to act.
Since 2011, Mali has emerged as the epicenter of a widening security and humanitarian crisis in the Sahel. The separatist rebellion that began that year, initially led by a coalition of northern ethnic Tuareg and Arab groups, gave Islamist militants abetted by foreign terrorist organizations a chance to establish a foothold in the north. And while the 2015 peace deal effectively ended the rebels’ quest to form a breakaway state, terrorist activity has continued to grow. Terrorist groups based in northern Mali regularly attack civilians as well as Malian and international forces, including UN peacekeepers and French counterterrorism troops. The reach of these terrorist groups has expanded, too—throughout Mali, to western Niger, northern and central Burkina Faso, and northern Côte d’Ivoire. In January, the United Nations warned of a “devasting surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets” in the region, noting that jihadist violence had killed some 4,000 people in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in 2019, compared with 770 three years earlier. In March, the U.S. Department of State’s top Africa official characterized the situation in the region as “getting much worse by the day” and announced the creation of a new special envoy for the Sahel to coordinate counterterrorism efforts.
The crisis has drawn in Mali’s neighbors as well as the international community. Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Niger have launched counterterrorism operations and borne the burden of responding to rising humanitarian assistance needs. The UN mission in Mali, which employs 15,000 peacekeepers and civilian staff, has helped the country avoid a return to civil war in the north. But the price of UN involvement has been steep: the mission has suffered more casualties than any other active UN peacekeeping mission—without bringing Mali much closer to a sustainable peace.
Mali is the epicenter of a widening security crisis in the Sahel.
Since 2015, the Algiers Accord has been minimally implemented. But it isn’t dead yet, and the international community should not give up on it. Signed by Mali’s government and the two main rebel movements in the north—the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and the Platform, both of which are referred to collectively as “the Movements”—the agreement mandated the creation of an independent observer to monitor implementation. Since 2018, the Carter Center, which we both represent, has served as the independent observer of the agreement. The signatories’ creation of an independent body to assess their progress—a first in Africa—attests to the sincerity of their intentions and commitment to transparency, a point often overlooked by the accord’s critics. It also testifies, however, to a high degree of mutual distrust.
Although the Keïta government and the Movements bear the major responsibility for the glacial implementation of the accord since its signing five years ago, the international community is hardly blameless. The accord calls for the UN Security Council, the African Union, and regional states to oversee implementation. Yet so far, faced with the signatories’ foot-dragging, the international community has appeared flummoxed and confused about the role it is to play. UN Security Council sanctions have been levied against a small number of mid-level individuals considered to have impeded implementation, with virtually no impact. There have been few consequences for missed deadlines set by the government and the Movements or for the stalling tactics by all sides. Inside the internationally supervised implementation process, a culture of delay has been normalized, and resistance to disarmament and demobilization by the Movements has been tolerated. We have repeatedly cited these faults in our seven independent observer reports, including the most recent.
To ensure that Mali’s present political transition remains peaceful and to salvage the accord as a mechanism for resolving long-standing, recognized grievances, the international community will need to redouble its efforts to support implementation. Renewed international activism could center around a clear, robust, and effective set of incentives for progress and disincentives for inaction. International partners could also begin focused mediation to overcome persistent roadblocks to the disarmament and demobilization of the CMA and the Platform and the reestablishment of basic social services in the north. Demobilization is only one piece of the puzzle, however; it must be intertwined with political reform, including the decentralization of government—as agreed by all parties to the accord—or both processes will fail. Finally, a much wider swath of Malian society, including representatives from the central region and breakaway paramilitary factions, must be involved in the reconciliation efforts. Without wider public participation in and support for the peace process, the prospects for resolving Mali’s crisis are dim.
Delays in implementation have been driven in part by a lack of trust. Malian conservatives remain unconvinced of the loyalty of integrated soldiers from the CMA. Accusations of the CMA’s collaboration with jihadist groups, including al Qaeda, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), are common, and it is true that some CMA members have not severed all ties with their former jihadist allies. The CMA, in turn, complains that the slow pace of the accord’s implementation demonstrates that the government has not been a reliable partner for peace. The CMA has responded to the terrorist threats and the security crisis by extending its territorial reach in northern and northeastern Mali. While this has unquestionably helped reduce insecurity in the short term (and demonstrated the ability of the Malian military and the Movements to collaborate tacitly when necessary), it undermines disarmament and demobilization efforts and contravenes the peace agreement.
Indeed, the CMA was able to expand its reach in the north precisely because the demobilization process is adrift. The bedrock of the Algiers Accord is the disarmament of rebel combatants and their integration into a new, more inclusive and effective national army capable of confronting the terrorist threat. Despite its centrality to the peace process, demobilization was impeded by the Keïta government’s inability or unwillingness to articulate a plan for integrating ex-rebel combatants into the national security forces. While roughly 1,300 combatants have been integrated, few of the joint units are operational, and many suffer from lack of food, fuel, housing, and weapons. Neither the Movements nor the government has agreed on the total number of combatants to be integrated. The demobilization process, in short, has no clear endpoint or agreed goal. The lack of direction is exacerbated by the fact that neither the CMA nor the Platform has committed to fully relinquishing command of its respective combatants. Continued vacillation by all sides deepens the chasm of distrust among the signatories.
Many Malians consider the accord to be a self-serving project of political elites.
Implementation of the accord has also been handicapped by the fact that the process is inherently exclusive rather than inclusive. While the accord calls for support from “civil society, particularly women and young people, the media, and traditional and religious authorities,’’ it provides no means for them to participate. Civil society has been shut out of implementation, which largely takes place in the capital, Bamako. The result is that civilian priorities, particularly the urgent need to address insecurity but also the economic development and justice provisions of the accord, are almost entirely neglected. An ever-growing number of Malians have come to consider the accord to be a self-serving project of political elites.
International efforts to facilitate implementation have largely failed to overcome these obstacles. The signatories stress that the international community’s commitment, both political and economic, convinced them in 2015 that this agreement would be distinct from failed past accords. Yet diplomatic engagement, led by Algeria as chair of the international mediation team, has been inconsistent, marked by contradictory evaluations about the state of progress and alternating between a hands-off approach focused on intra-Malian dialogue and high-level, one-day interventions that attempt to overcome critical impasses. When significant roadblocks have emerged, the international community has been unsuccessful in impressing upon the signatories the urgency of finding meaningful solutions or proposing consequences if they do not.
Mali’s current political crisis, coming just after the five-year anniversary of the accord, certainly raises the risk of a power vacuum that could further unravel the country, but it also offers an opportunity to shift course. It is critical that the signatory parties come to a shared understanding of what constitutes sufficient implementation. As the agreement itself anticipates, forging such a consensus will require intensive international facilitation. The international community's inclination thus far to treat the peace agreement as a matter left largely for the Malian signatories to execute, while focusing on the regional terrorist threat centered in Mali, has not worked. International engagement will need to tie bilateral and multilateral political, military, and economic support more effectively to specific steps by the government and the Movements.
International engagement on the demobilization process must focus on the key issues: the number of ex-rebel combatants to be included in the national security forces; their ranks and areas of deployment; the timetable for the full demobilization of the CMA and Platform militias; the provisions for those who choose to enter civilian life or are deemed ineligible for the process; and the nature of subnational security entities, such as the anticipated northern regional police force. A centerpiece of this effort could be regular military-to-military talks between the signatories, assisted by UN military experts. A specially appointed facilitator for this effort would give it the best chance of success. No current mechanism in the implementation process consistently allows the signatories’ top-level military figures to build trust and dialogue about shared security objectives.
Finally, the international community needs to increase its engagement on the political reform provisions of the agreement—and see effective decentralization through—while also pressing the signatories to ensure that more Malians, representing a broader swathe of Malian society, are involved in the implementation process. The roots of the 2012 rebellion lay in the disaffection of part of the northern population from Malian national political life, and security reforms alone will not address that issue. Greater public ownership of the process—achieved by directly involving more citizens in the work of implementation and arranging more exchanges between and among the parties, the international mediation team, and Malian citizens—could give the agreement new life and Mali a fresh start.
Amid the country’s multiple crises—and given the lack of progress in implementation—the Algiers Accord has begun to slip slowly off the international radar. It should not. The agreement provides the best available framework for addressing the conflict in northern Mali and the wider grievances about governance that have helped to fuel violence for years. Success is still possible; the stakes are sustainable peace in Mali. Focused action by Mali’s international allies is urgently required to avoid a still wider and even graver crisis for Mali and the Sahel region as a whole.
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