Mali Is Not a Stan

When it comes to covering Africa's latest conflict, it's suddenly amateur hour.

For nearly 10 months, Mali sat on the international community's back-burner of global crises in need of addressing. The eurozone, Syria's civil war, and China and Japan's dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands garnered far more column inches among America's talking heads than did the situation in Mali, where an inadvertent coup d'état last March by low-level military officers created a security vacuum in the country's north. Meanwhile, the usual small group of experts on the Sahel -- the vast, parched region spanning across Africa from Mauritania to Sudan -- watched closely as jihadist groups seized more and more territory, imposing a harsh from of Islamic law upon hapless Malian civilians.

It wasn't until Jan. 11, when France began bombing the Islamists to stop their advance on Mali's government-held south, that the rest of the world snapped to attention. And that's when the trouble began: the terrible headlines, the misleading cover art, and the bad analysis.

But first, some background on how we got here. By April 2012, the collapse of state authority in northern Mali had allowed a separatist rebel movement, the MNLA (the French acronym for National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), to take over the north's major cities and to declare the independence of their long-dreamed-of state of Azawad. The dream of Azawad lasted less than two months, when MNLA fighters were pushed out of power by three Islamist groups, Ansar Dine, MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). These movements attempted to erect governance structures and systems based on a strict interpretation of sharia in the areas they controlled, going so far as to impose such penalties as cutting off hands for accusations of theft, requiring women to wear hijab in public, and segregating boys and girls at school.

Despite displacing over 100,000 people, the 2012 turmoil in northern Mali did not provoke much international response beyond pro forma condemnations. It took the Security Council until late December to approve a plan to retake northern Mali via the deployment of a 3,300-person West African force.  That plan involved extensive training for West African troops, and no sort of invasion was expected before late 2013 at the earliest.

Fast-forward to mid-January, when the French stunned the world with the speed of their intervention. France's involvement in the crisis expanded quickly; as of this writing, there are approximately 3,000 French forces deployed to the country. In addition, a total African force of 7,700 soldiers is deploying to fight alongside the Malian army to secure and protect the country's north. These forces have taken control of the cities of Gao and Timbuktu, and already France may be signaling its intention to pull back and leave African forces to run the operation.

African affairs are generally a low foreign-policy priority for the United States. As such, the American foreign policy establishment is not well known for its expertise on West African security crises. But France's sudden and deep engagement in Mali -- and limited U.S. support for the operation -- left most media outlets and think tanks in need of immediate explanations. Not surprisingly, this state of affairs led to a sudden proliferation of Mali "experts" pontificating on the airways and in print about a country most could not have located with ease on a map two weeks before. False claims based on limited contextual knowledge have since abounded, including one widely repeated claim that this crisis is largely a result of the Libya intervention (it's not; this happened due to domestic political crises in Mali).

Among the most egregious -- and inaccurate -- claims about the crisis to emerge is the idea that Mali could become France's Afghanistan. Apparently based on the understanding that engaging in war against Muslim extremists on difficult terrain in a fragile state, reporters and politicos across the ideological spectrum have embraced the comparison, warning of the possibility of mission creep and/or other dire consequences. The Economist took this notion the farthest last week, dedicating its cover to "Afrighanistan?" Time followed suit with a brief cover reference to "Africanistan.

The idea that Mali is or could be the next Afghanistan is flat-out wrong, as is the notion that France's role in West Africa is likely to be akin to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. While there are comparisons to be made (e.g., both countries are struggling to combat the presence of Islamist extremists), the two situations are so different that defining them as near-equivalents only serves to muddle clear thinking about Mali's current and future prospects. Remember all those comparisons of Afghanistan to Vietnam? The historical analogy had only very limited utility because the former's history and context had almost nothing in common with the latter's. Likewise, Mali's uniqueness means that outcomes in that country -- as well as the depth and breadth of French engagement -- will no doubt be very different.

How is Mali different from Afghanistan? First, Mali is not where empires go to die. Afghanistan is well-known as a place that has always been difficult for any outsiders to invade and sustain military engagement, much less establish governing institutions. What governing institutions are established have long been weak and largely decentralized structures that allow local and tribal leaders maximum autonomy. Mali, by contrast, has a longer history of at least some centralized rule. The Mali Empire, which governed a huge swath of West Africa from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, included the renowned city of scholarship in Timbuktu. Mali's colonization by France in 1892 was largely peaceful, and the country has never engaged in a serious war until now, with the exception of a brief and violent border dispute with Burkina Faso in the mid-1980s. France's exit from Mali at the end of colonization was accomplished peacefully as well.

France's engagement in Mali is also unlike U.S. engagement in Afghanistan in that, because of their colonial history, the French know what they are getting into. There are decades of outstanding French scholarship on Mali; France is practically drowning in Mali experts in government, academia, and the private sector. This is more important than many realize; having deep cultural and historical knowledge and a shared language (most educated Malians still speak French) makes it much easier for French forces to relate to average Malians and build friendships with key local leaders whose support will be necessary for long-term success.

Not surprisingly, French forces have been greeted by most Malians as liberators, with one citizen complimenting their desire to learn how to properly greet in the Bambara language in an interview with Reuters. In a country where extended and elaborate greeting rituals are a very important feature of communal life, knowing the importance of greeting others correctly is probably the single most important means by which French soldiers will win Malian hearts and minds.

Third, Mali is not Afghanistan because there are no Pashtuns. While the MNLA separatists are comprised of some members of the Tuareg ethic group, outside of that dynamic, ethnicity in Mali is much less a basis of contention than it is in Afghanistan. Indeed, the most interesting social dynamic in Mali may be the relationship between competing forms of Islamic devotion, not ethnic groups. Likewise, Mali lacks an equivalent to Pakistan -- there is no neighboring state or individuals in that state who share militants' ethnicity and have the backing of elements of a hostile spy agency. The Islamists who do operate in northern Mali are a disparate group with diffuse goals, as this series of posts by Sahel expert Andrew Lebovich make clear. Ansar Dine just split, and it is likely that the group dynamics of the Islamists will continue to evolve in the near future. This is not to say that ethnicity and other social cleavages do not matter in Mali; they do. But unlike in Afghanistan, they are not directly tied up in the dynamics of northern Mali's Islamists. Many Islamist leaders in northern Mali aren't even Malians.

Finally, the circumstances of French intervention in Mali are completely different from those of the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan. The French did not invade Mali; the Malian government asked them to come assist in repelling the Islamists. France also intervened with the clear expectation and understanding that the bulk of peace-building in Mali will be conducted by an African force, and that local and regional African leaders will have long term responsibility for the crisis. The French do not seem to have plans to stick around, build forward operating bases, and attempt to govern on their own terms. Furthermore, the stated goal of the French intervention is to rid northern Mali of Islamist militants rather than the more ambiguous goals of the U.S. "War on Terror." France laid out a measurable objective for fighting from the beginning. In this, the French seem determined to avoid the pitfalls of Afghanistan rather than replicating them.

That said, Mali's future is far from certain. There are already signs that the MNLA are trying to reassert authority in northern Mali, which could lead to more violence in the weeks and months to come. Mali's domestic politics are still far from settled; the junta that staged the coup that created this mess is still very much around and willing to intervene in politics, though their power seems to have diminished since the French arrived. Mali's president has announced his intention to hold elections by July 31, but whether doing so will be logistically or politically possible remains anyone's guess. The only thing that is clear is that America's punditocracy will need to understand the crisis for some time to come. They might do well to call some actual Mali experts next time.



A Maritime Balkans of the 21st Century?

East Asia is a tinderbox on water.

These are no ordinary times in East Asia. With tensions rising from conflicting territorial claims in the East China and South China seas, the region increasingly resembles a 21st-century maritime redux of the Balkans a century ago -- a tinderbox on water. Nationalist sentiment is surging across the region, reducing the domestic political space for less confrontational approaches. Relations between China and Japan have now fallen to their lowest ebb since diplomatic normalization in 1972, significantly reducing bilateral trade and investment volumes and causing regional governments to monitor developments with growing alarm. Relations between China and Vietnam, and between China and the Philippines, have also deteriorated significantly, while key regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have become increasingly polarized. In security terms, the region is more brittle than at any time since the fall of Saigon in 1975.

In Beijing, current problems with Tokyo, Hanoi, and Manila are top of mind. They dominate both the official media and the social media, and the latter have become particularly vitriolic. They also dominate discussions between Chinese officials and foreign visitors. The relationship with Japan in particular is front and center in virtually every official conversation as Chinese interlocutors probe what they identify as a profound change in both the tenor of Japanese domestic politics and the centrality of China within the Japanese debate. Beijing does not desire armed conflict with Japan over territorial disputes, but nonetheless makes clear that it has its own red lines that cannot be crossed for its own domestic reasons, and that it is prepared for any contingency.

Like the Balkans a century ago, riven by overlapping alliances, loyalties, and hatreds, the strategic environment in East Asia is complex. At least six states or political entities are engaged in territorial disputes with China, three of which are close strategic partners of the United States. And there are multiple agencies involved from individual states: In China, for example, the International Crisis Group has calculated that eight different agencies are engaged in the South China Sea alone. Furthermore, these territorial claims -- and the minerals, energy, and marine resources at stake -- are vast. And while the United States remains mostly neutral, the intersection between the narrower interests of claimant states and the broader strategic competition between the United States and China is significant and not automatically containable.

Complicating matters, East Asia increasingly finds itself being pulled in radically different directions. On the one hand, the forces of globalization are bringing its peoples, economies, and countries closer together than at any other time in history, as reflected in intraregional trade, which is now approaching 60 percent of total East Asian trade. On the other hand, the forces of primitive, almost atavistic nationalisms are at the same time threatening to pull the region apart. As a result, the idea of armed conflict, which seems contrary to every element of rational self-interest for any nation-state enjoying the benefits of such unprecedented regional economic dynamism, has now become a terrifying, almost normal part of the regional conversation, driven by recent territorial disputes, but animated by deep-rooted cultural and historical resentments. Contemporary East Asia is a tale of these two very different worlds.

The most worrying fault lines run between China and Japan, and between China and Vietnam. In September 2012, the Japanese government purchased from a private owner three islands in the Senkakus, a small chain of islands claimed by both countries (the Chinese call the islands the Diaoyu). This caused China to conclude that Japan, which had exercised de facto administrative control over the islands for most of the last century, was now moving toward a more de jure exercise of sovereignty. In response, Beijing launched a series of what it called "combination punches": economic retaliation, the dispatch of Chinese maritime patrol vessels to the disputed areas, joint combat drills among the branches of its military, and widespread, occasionally violent public protests against Japanese diplomatic and commercial targets across China. As a result, Japanese exports to China contracted rapidly in the fourth quarter of 2012, and because Japan had already become China's largest trading partner, sliding exports alone are likely to be a significant contributive factor in what is projected to be a large contraction in overall Japanese economic growth in the same period.

In mid-December, Japan claimed that Chinese aircraft intruded over Japanese airspace above the disputed islands for the first time since 1958. After a subsequent incident, Japan dispatched eight F-15 fighter planes to the islands. While both sides have avoided deploying naval assets, there is a growing concern of creeping militarization as military capabilities are transferred to coast guard-type vessels.

While the "static" in Japanese military circles regarding China-related contingency planning has become increasingly audible, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in mid-December, has sought to moderate his public language on China, apparently to send a diplomatic message that he wishes to restore stability to the relationship. This was reinforced by a conciliatory letter sent from Abe to Xi Jinping, China's new leader, on Jan. 25 during a visit to Beijing by the leader of New Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's coalition partner. This has been publicly and privately welcomed in Beijing, as reflected in Xi's public remarks the following day. Beijing's position is that while it wants Japan to formally recognize the existence of a territorial dispute in order to fortify China's political and legal position on the future of the islands, it also wishes to see the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute managed in a manner that does not threaten regional security, which would undermine the stability necessary to complete its core task of economic reform and growth.

There may therefore be some softening in the China-Japan relationship for the immediate period ahead. But diplomatic and strategic realities appear to remain largely unchanged. The intensity of Abe and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida's unprecedented mid-January diplomatic offensive involving visits to seven East Asian states demonstrates that the temperature between Beijing and Tokyo remains high -- just as the late January statement from Tokyo on the establishment of a special Japanese Coast Guard force of 12 enhanced vessels and 600 servicemen specifically dedicated to the Senkaku theater underlines the nature of the challenges lying ahead. The problem is that neither side can afford domestically to be seen as retreating from current positions. China believes that Japan has altered the status quo; Japan believes it has no need to budge because there is no sovereignty issue in the first place. All of this means that both sides remain captive to events on the high seas and in the air -- events that could quickly spiral out of control.

To prevent this from happening, both sides will obviously need to maintain their public political positions for domestic reasons, while both will need gradually and reciprocally to de-escalate the deployment of maritime and air assets. This would need to be done according to a schedule negotiated by an intermediary or though their own back channels. If such back-channel negotiations are not already under way (and there is some evidence they may be), then it's in the interests of both sides to get the ball rolling. Japan should not install any equipment or station any personnel on the islands, as has been discussed from time to time in Tokyo, as this would inevitably result in further retaliatory action from Beijing, with every prospect of generating a further crisis. If these steps could be taken and the situation then stabilized, perhaps longer-term consideration could be given to inviting an appropriate international environmental agency to exercise environmental management responsibilities on and around the islands, where, by informal agreement, national vessels would not go.

By contrast, territorial claims in the South China Sea are even more complex. According to U.S. agencies, Chinese officials have claimed that the sea contains proven oil reserves as high as 213 billion barrels (10 times U.S. reserves, though American scientists are more skeptical) and 25 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves (roughly the total proven reserves of Qatar). The South China Sea also accounts for some 10 percent of the world's annual fisheries catch. The region is already the scene of deeply disputed exploratory activities for deep-sea energy resources. Fisheries are also already the subject of multiple physical confrontations between vessels. Furthermore, unlike the Senkaku/Diaoyu, many islands in the South China Sea are already occupied, garrisoned, and home to naval bases.

Six states plus Taiwan have disputed territorial claims in the area, though the largest overlap by far is between China and Vietnam. The two states have already skirmished over their conflicting claims, in 1974 and 1988; they also fought a major border war in 1979. One senior Vietnamese neatly described the Sino-Vietnamese relationship in May 2011 by saying, "The two countries are old friends and old enemies." It is also clear that the Chinese today possess considerable economic leverage over Vietnam, to the extent that one senior Vietnamese official candidly remarked recently that China could simply wreck the Vietnamese economy if it so chose. It would be wrong, however, given ancient resentments, that economic dependency would automatically constrain Vietnamese diplomatic or even military action in relation to the South China Sea.

The China-Vietnam relationship has soured since Chinese ships severed the seismic cables of Vietnamese exploratory vessels in May 2011 and again in December 2012. According to Reuters, Vietnam subsequently stated that as of January 2013 it would deploy civilian vessels supported by marine police to stop foreign vessels from violating its waters, while India, Vietnam's partner in some of the explorations, indicated it would consider sending naval vessels to the South China Sea to protect its interests. Meanwhile, China's Hainan province announced that starting in 2013, provincial maritime surveillance vessels would begin intercepting, searching, and repelling foreign vessels violating Chinese territorial seas, including the disputed territory. These various statements concerning new and radically conflicting procedures for the interception of foreign vessels set the stage for significant confrontation in the year ahead. Vietnam and China appear to have set themselves on a collision course, and those who monitor this relationship closely fear a repeat of those earlier armed conflicts.

To prevent further escalation, Beijing and Hanoi need now to step back from the edge. They should agree to prioritize development of, and agreement on, the long-awaited code of conduct between ASEAN and China on the South China Sea, including the joint development of energy projects. Both governments should identify a single project in an area where both sides claim sovereignty and begin the practical negotiation of a joint development regime. If this is too difficult, then both sides could consider the development of a joint fisheries project in a single defined area, as this would further sidestep sensitive sovereignty issues more acutely connected with resource extraction regimes. In other words, rather than wait for the conclusion of a complex diplomatic negotiation over the final text of the code of conduct, start to build trust by cooperating on a real project. If this approach succeeds with China and Vietnam, similar joint development projects could be developed with the other claimant states.

None of this might work. Nationalism might prevail. Policymakers could simply allow events to run their course, like they did a century ago. In his recent book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, historian Christopher Clark recounts how the petty nationalisms of the Balkans combusted with the great-power politics and failed statesmanship of the time to produce the industrial-scale carnage of World War I. This was a time when economic globalization was even deeper than it is today, and when the governments of Europe, right up until 1914, had concluded that a pan-European war was irrational and, therefore, impossible. I believe a pan-Asian war is extremely unlikely. Nonetheless, for those of us who live in this region, facing escalating confrontations in the East China and South China seas, Europe is a cautionary tale very much worthy of reflection.