The conflict in northern Mali has already created more than 350,000 internally displaced persons and refugees who have fled to the neighboring states of Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso. In Mali, 4.6 million people face food insecurity and further food shortages are looming. Mali has also lost hundreds of millions of dollars in suspended aid from the United States, the World Bank, and the EU, not to mention the loss of revenue from tourism and foreign investment.
ECOWAS is right to want to move quickly to challenge the influence of the Islamic extremist groups in the north. If the international community waits another 12 months to intervene, al Qaeda will have grown stronger in northern Mali and the human costs will be significantly higher. It is appropriate that ECOWAS try to negotiate a national unity government to restore Mali's territorial integrity. The reality, however, is that al Qaeda does not negotiate. An intervention force will be necessary.
The African Union (AU) seems to have grasped this, signaling cautious support for an ECOWAS intervention. At a recent meeting, the African Union Peace and Security Council adopted a resolution endorsing the plan to deploy regional forces under a Chapter VII resolution. The council also supported the ECOWAS call for a 12-month transition in Mali and the organization of a credible presidential election. The AU is not going to war, but ECOWAS wants to intervene -- and it is a credible objective, especially with the appropriate support as we've seen successfully implemented in Somalia.
The question is whether the AU or the U.N. Security Council is prepared to support the deployment of a stabilization force before there is a democratically elected government in Bamako. In the end, there may be little choice. There is no indication that Diacounda Traore, the country's 70-year-old transitional president, will return from Paris any time soon to head up the interim government. In fact, neither Traore nor Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra participated in the July ECOWAS summit in Burkina Faso that was convened to develop a road map for tackling the crisis, suggesting a genuine power vacuum in Bamako.
Moreover, the Malian military is in complete disarray. Even with an election, it is unlikely that a new Malian government would be able to defeat the jihadists in Timbuktu and elsewhere, let alone exercise effective administration of the nation in the next 12 to 24 months. In fact, it was the frustration over the Toure government's inability to pursue and sustain the brewing conflict with the Tuaregs that was a key contributing factor to the March coup. (Another contributing factor was the NATO-supported overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Many of the Tuareg fighters who had been hired by Qaddafi to strengthen his forces returned to challenge the Malian government with newly acquired arms.)
If there is any lesson to be learned from two decades of crisis and conflict in Somalia, however, it is that inattention and inaction by the international community fuels instability and enables conflict to spread beyond borders. Thus, as the international community deliberates over how and when to restore order and governance in Mali -- hopefully, sooner rather than later -- it is clear that NATO can, and has a certain obligation, to play a supportive role to the ECOWAS force.
Another painful lesson from Somalia is that there needs to be a legitimate government to consolidate the security gains that any U.N. or AU-authorized force might make. Malians are the ones ultimately responsible for restoring a credible government -- but the country's Western partners would be well served to invest as much, if not more, in governance, civil society, and job creation than in counterinsurgency in order to achieve that outcome.