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Mali: the Catastrophic Consequence of Humanitarian Intervention in Libya

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On April 6, 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, led by Tuareg rebels, declared the independence of North Mali. They took advantage of the military coup that deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré and effectively occupied the northern region of the country. This declaration of independence is directly linked to the false promise of humanitarian intervention in Libya.

When it was thought that Gaddafi's forces were about to commit a Srebrenica-style massacre in Benghazi, President Obama, supported by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said this: "When the entire international community almost unanimously says that there is a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place -- that a leader who has lost his legitimacy decides to turn his military on his own people -- that we can't simply stand by with empty words -- that we have to take some sort of action." But after the fall of Gaddafi's regime, it has become clear that intervention in Libya was simply reduced to armed intervention only. It failed to look beyond the proximate objectives of its military campaign. It failed to consider the spillover effect on neighboring countries.

Given NATO's military involvement in Libya, the inevitable fall of Gaddafi's regime should have prompted a prior plan to secure the arsenal bought by Libya once U.N. sanctions were lifted in 2003. Once Gaddafi's regime collapsed, the huge quantities of weapons were smuggled across Libya's borders. But Libya under Gaddafi was known to be home to insurgent groups from all over Africa. Among these were the Berber people who live in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Libya, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, which they call Azawad. While in exile in Libya, many of them were well-trained as mercenaries by Gaddafi's forces. Given the weak capacity of the surrounding countries to control their borders and stop the arms flow from Libya, the Tuareg rebels returned with plenty of heavy weaponry to Mali. The Libyan arms were used to divide the country in two. More troublesome, one of the major Tuareg rebel groups, the Islamist Ansar Dine, has ties to al Qaeda's North Africa branch, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM is among the recipients of the huge quantities of Libyan weapons. I will not address here an obvious and serious national security issue: the threat to commercial airlines by looted surface-to-air missiles, and the newly discovered stockpiles of chemical weapons, which was up to that time unknown to the West under the deal that ended U.N. sanctions on Libya. Poorly planned intervention in Libya led to the dissemination of looted weapons all over the region.

Because France was the leading Western defense contractor in Libya before the revolt and because France turned around and aided the collapse of Gaddafi's regime, it has the moral obligation to intervene in Mali. The looted weapons gave an absolute advantage to the Tuareg rebels over the regular Malian army. This declaration of independence should not stand. In the case where an ethnic affinity is congruent with a territory, as in Eastern Europe, partition could be considered if it is impossible for groups to coexist. But in Africa, the borders were arbitrarily drawn. Supporting the independence of the Azawad by doing nothing, will open a floodgate of nationalism on the continent where many ethnic groups are poorly integrated owing to weak governance. In the present Tuareg case, identity-based motivations through irredentism may open the way for many states go so far as to claim territory in which their ethnic kin reside. This could destabilize many states in the region. The future political negotiations with the rebels should oppose the presently imposed partition but should seriously consider a semi-autonomous province for the nomadic Tuareg people. The other importantly reason for France to intervene is that, in a similar situation, Afghanistan was invaded by western forces because al Qaeda, then centered in that country, had attacked and was posing a threat to the U.S.. The same situation holds true for France today with respect to AQIM. It is actively involved in Northern Mali and has French blood on its hands. Refusing to intervene in Mali raises the question: Were the lives of the people of Benghazi worth more than those of French nationals?

More to the point, France's refusal to intervene in Mali opens a timely debate: the hypocrisy that singularly targeted Libya for armed intervention. Liberal interventionism in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya, has led to state failure and has left behind a radical alteration of the power balance. One-time losers are now winners, but their new government's writ extends no further than its offices. Previous victims who were advantaged by military intervention are turning killers without restraint, embarrassing their rescuers through their massive violations of human rights, as in Libya today. When liberal interventionism becomes armed intervention only (with its underlying philosophy of bomb first and solve problems later), it discredits future intervention. What is missing is R2P, the "responsibility to protect."

R2P should be taken very seriously. According to Foreign Policy's state failure index, 40 to 60 countries, home to nearly two billion people, are on the brink of implosion or have already collapsed. Those data compel us not to continue drafting resolutions without mechanisms of accountability and a non-myopic anticipation of bad consequences. From 1992 in Somalia, 1994 in Haiti, 1995 in Bosnia, 1999 in Kosovo, 2001 in Afghanistan, and 2003 in Iraq, the international community should by now have learned how to manage humanitarian intervention missions.