The ‘Mess in Mali’: The Logic of Unintended Consequences

Refugees fleeing Mali conflict. Photo: OCHA/Nicole Lawrence
Refugees fleeing Mali conflict. Photo: OCHA/Nicole Lawrence
The intentional misreading of UN security council resolution 1973 resulted in Nato’s predictably violent Operation Odyssey in Libya last year.

Not only did the action cost many thousands of lives and untold destruction, it also paved the way for perpetual conflict – not only in Libya but throughout north Africa.

Mali was the first major victim of Nato’s Libyan intervention. It is now a staple in world news and headlines such as “The mess in Mali” serve as a mere reminder of a bigger “African mess.”

On March 17 last year resolution 1973 resolved to establish a no-fly zone over Libya.

On March 19, Nato’s bombers began scorching Libyan land, supposedly to prevent a massacre of civilians.

The next day, an ad-hoc high-level African Union panel on Libya met in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, and made one last desperate call to bring Nato’s war to an immediate halt.

It stated: “Our desire is that Libya’s unity and territorial integrity be respected as well as the rejection of any kind of foreign military intervention.”

The African Union (AU) is seldom considered a viable political player by the UN, Nato or any interventionist Western power.

But AU members were fully aware that Nato was unconcerned with human rights or the well-being of African nations.

They also knew that instability in one African country can lead to major instabilities throughout the region.

Various north African countries are glued together by a delicate balance – due to the messy colonial legacy inherited from colonial powers – and Mali is no exception.

It is perhaps too early to talk about winners and losers in the Mali fiasco, which was triggered on March 22 by a military coup led by army captain Amadou Sanogo.

The coup created political space for the Tuaregs’ National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to declare independence in the north merely two weeks later.

The declaration was the culmination of quick military victories by MNLA and its militant allies, which led to the capture of Gao and other major towns.

These successive developments further emboldened Islamic and other militant groups to seize cities across the country and hold them hostage to their ideological and other agendas.

Ansar al-Din, for example, had reportedly worked in tandem with the MNLA, but declared a war “against independence” and “for Islam” as soon as it secured its control over Timbuktu.

More groups and more arms are now pouring through the ever-porous borders with Mauritania, Algeria and Niger.

Al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, along with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are now making their moves across Mali.

New alliances are being formed and new emirates are being declared, making Mali a potential stage for numerous permanent conflicts.

Speaking to The Guardian, former UN regional envoy Robert Fowler railed against Nato.

“Whatever the motivation of the principal Nato belligerents [in ousting Gadaffi], the law of unintended consequences is exacting a heavy toll in Mali today and will continue to do so throughout the Sahel as the vast store of Libyan weapons spreads across this, one of the most unstable regions of the world.”

Considering that the inevitability of post-Libya destabilisation was obvious to so many from the start, why the insistence on referencing a “law of unintended consequences”?

Even “chaos” has its own logic. For several years, and especially since the establishment of the United States Africa Command (Africom) in 2008, much meddling has taken place in various parts of Africa.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Gregory Mann tried to undermine the fact that Sanogo “had American military training, and briefly affected a US Marine Corps lapel pin.”

He said that these details “are surely less important than the stunning fact that a decade of American investment in special forces training, co-operation between Sahalien armies and the United States and counter-terrorism programmes of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.”

The details are hardly “less important,” considering that Sanogo called for international military intervention against the newly declared Tuareg republic, referencing Afghanistan as a model.

True, regional African countries and international institutions have strongly objected to both the military coup in the capital Bamako and the declaration of independence by the Tuaregs in the north, but that may prove irrelevant after all.

The Azawad succession appears permanent and the US, although it suspended part of the aid to Mali following the junta’s takeover, has not severed all ties with Sanogo.

After all, he too claims to be fighting al-Qaida and its allies.

It is difficult to believe that despite years of US-French involvement in Mali and surrounding region, the bedlam wasn’t predictable.

The US position regarding the coup was precarious.

“The Obama administration has not yet made a formal decision as to whether a military coup has taken place in Mali,” wrote John Glaster in

According to US military definitions, this is still a “mutiny, not a ‘coup'” and US army personnel – referred to as “advisory troops” – were in fact dispatched to Bamako after March 22, according to Africom spokeswoman Nicole Dalrymple.

What is clear is that the “mess in Mali” might be an opportunity for another intervention, which mainstream media sources are already rationalising.

A Washington Post editorial on April 5 counselled: “Nato partners should perceive a moral obligation, as well as a tangible national security interest, in restoring Mali’s previous order. The West should not allow its intervention in Libya to lead to the destruction of democracy – and entrenchment of Islamic militants – in a neighbouring state.”

Unintended consequences? Hardly.

Ramzy Baroud ( is an author and editor of His work has been published in many newspapers, journals and anthologies around the world. His is the author of The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London). His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).