Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Liberia and the International Military Intervention in Mali

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

Since the destabilization of Northern Mali by Tuaregs and so-called Islamic movements in early 2012, there have been serious concerns over the stability of the entire West African region. Mali’s position in West Africa is geopolitically strategic as it plays a key role in Francophone West Africa and connects with North Africa. This means a full destabilization of Mali has the proclivity to destabilize a significant portion of Africa. This has particularly come at a time when there are troubles in Libya, Niger and Nigeria. The intensification of the perennial Tuaregs insurgency in Mali cannot be discussed without reference to the Arab Spring, and its further expansion could weigh heavily on poor West African countries, particularly those in the Mano River basin area that currently serves as a haven for mercenaries.

This is why it has become an imperative to join forces around West Africa to contain the advances of the dissidents and restore full civilian authorities. This intervention should mostly claim the attention of stable countries in the sub-region. International efforts at stabilizing Mali has been double-edged with the UN and ECOWAS striking from one end with a multidimensional peace mission under the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), which includes military operations and several other aspects of postwar peacebuilding. On the other hand is Mali’s colonial master, France, who seized the moment with a military intervention that overran the rebels in just few weeks. France’s military intervention in January 2013 made headways in inflicting heavy casualties on the terrorist movements thereby paving ways for sustained international efforts at combating the dissidents and enforcing peace.

Can an African-led military mission make such gains in just few months? This has not been possible in Somalia and even Darfur, where there is a full UN Mission. Africa’s failure to make military gains during peace operations can possibly be linked to the lack of capacity both in trained military and in resources for such operations. In addition, the inability of regional organizations and even countries bordering war-affected states to contain mercenary activities corrosively undermines their collective peace missions. This has been experienced in the Mano River basin area for years. Therefore, increased coordination in political and military strategies by the countries can possibly lead to success in Mali. In addition, joint efforts by African nations to support each other during times of instability strengthen the confidence of the African peoples in the African Union and in regional organizations. This also heightens sense of internal security and builds confidence in the local population in states contributing to peace missions.

Liberia, a war-torn country still under UN peace operations has joined the ranks of other stable countries to send a platoon of its newly reformed army to form part of AFISMA. In the case of Liberia, it is obvious that the country is making all efforts to portray an image of post-conflict success and internal stability to the outside world, but the issue of confidence in internal security is still illusive considering the fact that Liberia’s security is still in the hands of the United Nations Mission in Liberia and its security institutions rely heavily on foreign aid. It is against this background that opponents of the deployment have described Liberia’s military involvement in Mali as premature. The most common argument against the involvement of Liberia is the proposition that the country is still struggling with internal security challenges and threats from porous borders. Proponents of this arguments believe that it makes no sense for such a nation to get involved with a foreign military operation.

On the other side, is the moral imperative argument that Liberia ‘must pay back’ the gains of the fragile peace it has now, because it was built on the blood and sweat of other peacekeepers. This has been the most popular argument even from top government officials. This argument has significant limitations in justifying such a costly military intervention. In issues of intervention, particularly in the case of containing terrorists, several key issues ought to be considered before moving in, and these issues are beyond the politics of international image building. One key issues to consider is the issue of capacity to sustain the mission, particularly when foreign aid has taken a downward trend in the last few years. Military operations need homegrown support to be sustained overtime. Second is the issue of internal assurance against retaliatory attacks, which are common in nations that are involved in counterterrorism warfare. Terrorists are stateless and anarchists fighting countless number of ‘enemies’ everywhere. Those involved in warfare against terrorists must have internal mechanisms that ensure adequate security particularly at border posts. The case of the July 2010 attack in Uganda by Al-Shabbab militants from Somalia is one such retaliatory attacks during which about 70 Ugandans sadly loss their lives. Al-Shabbab claimed then that the attack was a continuation of the fight against Uganda whose army is part of the AU mission in Somalia (AMESOM). The terrorist fighting in Mali are no different from Al-Shabbab. While there are greater hopes for the better, Liberia must not take its internal security and border issues lightly at this time.

Considering the current state of security affairs in Liberia, it is obvious that the country is not prepared at all for such a herculean task, which is largely concerned with image-building and ‘paying back’ rather than substantive considerations of the potential ramifications. In the April 2012 report of the UN Secretary General on the state of affairs in Liberia to the Security Council, the report described the current peace in Liberia as fragile and ‘vulnerable to disruption’. The report further stated that security agencies in Liberia (including the Armed Forces of Liberia) are incapable of containing instability without the support of UNMIL. The report further stated that the army is indiscipline, ‘does not have appropriate training or equipment’ even for border operations, and that attrition in the army stands at an alarming 10%. Many other analytical reports and newspaper articles have confirmed high attrition rate and lack of logistics for a functional army. The critical question now is how can such an army take up a major combat role in an international engagement? A short-term training for few in the same army just for a peace mission is more of a tinkering approach than an engagement of the larger process of post war army (re)formation and strengthening.

International affairs and security pundits had thought that stable countries in West Africa and elsewhere in Africa with considerable military might would have handled the military component of such a mission to contain the terrorists in Mali, while others like Liberia would make modest contributions in other dimensions of the mission. The current strength and capacity of the Liberian army, as discussed above is inadequate for such a mission. Besides, this army is still in training and expected to be operational only in 2014. This unpreparedness is technically and logically justified by the inclusion of the deployed AFL platoon into a Nigerian battalion.

Finally, this edition of the series fully supports the popular international intervention to return peace to Mali, and applauds the move towards greater solidarity and cooperation in African international and security affairs. At this time, Liberian authorities need to devise more strategies to ensure involvement in the non-military aspects of the intervention, which will be the peacekeeping stage. This could involve the deployment of civilian police as well as observers. Individual Liberian experts must also take the courage of seeking non-military or security related jobs in the AFISMA mission, for example, civic affairs and social services. All of these could add up to a modest and affordable contribution by both the state and its citizens.

In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry