As the US redefines its global priorities towards Asia and downplays its role in the Middle East and North Africa, European countries increasingly find themselves drawn into policing their southern neighborhood region. This was the case when European powers took the lead in the military campaign against Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. And it is the case with the ongoing war against Al-Qaida-linked militias in Mali.
The surprise attack launched by militant Islamist groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda, which in early January 2013 threatened to topple the regime in Bamako, prompted France to intervene militarily in the conflict. Perhaps puzzling for outside observers, the second country to provide military assistance to the intervention in Mali was neither Great Britain nor the US. It was one of Europe’s small states with a rather symbolic defence budget and capacity, Denmark. Only a few days after the French decision to send troops to Mali, the Danish parliament decided to respond positively to France’s request for assistance.
Because of the particular approach to balancing concerns about security, human rights and counter-terrorism which the country espouses, the Danish decision to intervene militarily in Mali opens up policy questions that are relevant for other European countries – small states like Denmark and bigger players like France and Great Britain alike. Danish calculations behind participating accentuate the need for a discussion of what Europe’s role in combating terrorism should be in the future. The case of Denmark is puzzling, because its decision to play an active role in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya and now in Mali, reflects a policy that would typically be associated with bigger states’ international agendas.
The shoulds and should nots?
So what does Denmark gain by participating in the military intervention in Mali and what does it risk in turn? The most obvious motivation for Denmark to support the military intervention in Mali is that it increases its long-term security by supporting its western allies. By complying with the French request for military assistance, Denmark confirms its security-political friendship with France, with Great Britain and with the US. It invests in a security-political insurance that may be activated in case Denmark should find itself in a difficult situation. Game-theoretically, this seems logical enough.
The Danish support for the intervention also contributes to consolidating the UN’s legitimacy and the importance of international law. It signals a principal adherence to the core values of the alliance by defeating a threat against human rights in Africa. Denmark along with its partners grants support to a government, which has requested military assistance from the international community. It thereby backs a UN resolution, which confirms that stability as well as Human Rights are threatened in Mali and its neighbouring countries. In sum, a small state like Denmark consolidates its position among the advocates for internationalism and universal human rights.
Finally, Denmark acts consistently with its security-political agenda as it has developed over the past ten years. Along with other countries, Denmark participated in the first operations in Afghanistan with the aim of eliminating Al-Qaeda’s bases that had functioned during Taleban rule as training-camps, in the run-up to the attack on American soil on 11 September 2001. In Mali, Denmark joins an operation that proactively seek to prevent Al-Qaeda’s North and West African branches, AQIM and MUJAO, from attaining a territorial base from whence they may plan new attacks on western targets – most likely on France, threatened by these groups on several occasions.
Alongside these weighty arguments, Denmark runs a considerable risk by intervening in Mali. These risks are not limited to Denmark, but feed into the wider question of whether European countries and the US should primarily respond to the threat of terrorism by military means.
Most obvious is the paradox that Denmark, by participating in fighting Al-Qaeda in Mali, incurs an increased security risk domestically. The many upward adjustments of the security threat against Denmark by the Danish intelligence agencies in the wake of Denmark’s participation in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has long since refuted any claim that there is no connection between a country’s domestic security threat and its military interventionism abroad.
By participating in military operations in the area that Al-Qaeda supporters consider part of ‘the Muslim world’ (an area that included Mali as well as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya), the domestic security threat is increased rather than decreased. The domestic political and judicial consequences of living with an increased level of terror threat are well known: a wider space for the intelligence services to operate in, less transparency in the intelligence services’ work, judicial dispositions that pressure constitutionally guaranteed civil rights, and an increased probability for xenophobia and the political polarisation of the public sphere.
Another security problem lies in the clear correlation between Al-Qaeda’s mobilization and international intervention. Al-Qaeda emerged in the end of the 1980s with the aim of reorienting the armed jihad away from the fight against what they term ‘the near enemy’, understood as Muslim ‘apostates’, toward the fight against ‘the far enemy’, understood as ‘crusaders and Zionists’ in and from ‘the West’.
Al-Qaeda’s struggle takes place globally as we experienced with the terror attacks throughout the 2000’s. But Al-Qaeda’s network thrives in particular when they operate ‘at home’ inside the ‘Islamic world’. The most spectacular example of this dynamic is obviously Iraq, where the American intervention created a common external enemy that different militant movements could unite against. In consequence, Al-Qaeda’s capacity to mobilize among local militant Islamists as well as those from other countries – including western countries - increased significantly. The intervention in Mali thus provides the Islamists in AQIM and MUJAO with exactly the type of war that may secure them an ability to endure in the region rather than the opposite effect.
The intervention in Mali furthermore raises the question of whether an illegitimate group such as the Islamist insurgents should be fought by the international community by forming alliance with another illegitimate group - Mali’s current government.
The present government in Mali has been appointed from a group of generals from the Malian army, which last year deposed Mali’s democratically elected government, a situation that until recently kept the US from contributing military assistance directly to the operation.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have furthermore documented violations of the basic rights of the citizens in Mali during the ongoing operation against the Islamists in Northern Mali perpetrated by units from the Malian army. The operation in Mali thus builds on collaboration with an actor who has down-prioritized democracy and holds a questionable attitude to human rights. Although the protection of human rights and the restoration of a democratically elected government were among the reasons to intervene, the operation is built on the premise that these reasons are, at least in the short term, on the back burner.
What tradeoff does Europe want?
It is one thing to identify the advantages, disadvantages, and risks that Denmark and other European states face when engaging in the military operation in Mali. It is a far more complicated task to balance these and make the ‘least bad’ policy decision. Denmark’s decision reflects one particular position and one way of squaring the circle.
For a small state like Denmark with an ambition to actively contribute to combating global terrorism, the question is not whether to act, but how to do so. Prior to the wars in the 2000s, Denmark had built up an international profile around developmental assistance and diplomacy anchored in multilateral institutions. In principle, nothing hindered the Danish government from continuing this policy and avoiding the current privileging of military means over civil. The text of the UN resolution on Mali leaves open a range of political approaches to the conflict that neither rely on military action nor support it, and Denmark could have chosen to limit its engagement to initiatives that emphasize mediation and conflict resolution or capacity-building while still supporting multilateralism and staying firmly committed to its core political values. The Danish decision to engage militarily, however, reflects an embrace of the American approach to counter-terrorism in spite of the short-term security risks it entails.
The Danish decision shows that the American downscaling of its direct involvement in the Middle East and North Africa is pushing some European countries to take on a more active role in policing its southern neighbours.
Simultaneously, the Danish case shows that it is important for Europe at large to define how it plans to handle such challenges and the pressure for political action it entails in the future. At a time when the Pax Americana of a unipolar world is changing, it seems unlikely that echoing the security response model established over the past decade by the American military machine is the best option for Europe.
Complicating those adventures, beginning with Mali
One way to address the dilemma emerging with the changing role of European involvement in its neighbourhood region would be to develop a foreign policy identity based on well-defined principles of intervention. Such a move would provide increased democratic transparency to the European publics. It would complicate neo-colonial adventures. And it would kickstart a process by which European publics would be forced to consider how they wish to contribute to uphold international security and what measures European states should abstain from on principle.
The case of Mali displays challenges that Europe should have in mind when defining its future position. Firstly, no security expert of standing has ventured to claim that the ongoing operation will remove the Al-Qaeda-related threat in the Sahel-area and West Africa. The more plausible scenario seem to be that the militant groups withdraw from Mali only to consolidate themselves in neighbouring countries where they are known to have collaboration partners: Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso etc. While Algeria and Nigeria may have the necessary capacity and competence to resist the encroachment of militant groups, most of the others do not. Some of them even struggle with corrupt and illegitimate governments running some of the world’s poorest state apparatuses.
Secondly, it is unclear whether the international support to one party of a conflict, which is partially fuelled by local ethnic differences and a history of unequal distribution of resources between the north and the south, will contribute to appeasement or to conflict-escalation once the international coalition withdraws. The experience from Afghanistan is particularly disturbing in this regard.
Thirdly, it is unclear what it takes for the operation to come to an end. What will constitute a success in Mali? Again the experience from Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that if the operation’s exit strategies and criteria for success are not defined beforehand, they will be invented along the way – with results that most often look more like defeat than victory.
Finally, the number of successful experiences with supporting weak military-governments and reforming them into solid democracies is negligible. The colonial history of the twentieth century in and outside the region has generally proved the opposite: that regimes that grow out of international intervention have great problems with developing stable democracies.
A charter stating the principles for when how and why Europe makes use of the ultimate policy instrument – warfare and military intervention – may disarm some of the accusations about neo-imperialism that Europe’s great players and former colonial powers, France and the United Kingdom, face from their critics when intervening in its southern neighborhood.
The elaboration of a charter for military intervention may also decrease the pressure felt by Europe’s smaller states who, much like Denmark, are not normally associated with imperial interests and who do not have the military capacity to back up such ambitions in the Sahel-region or elsewhere. It may at least partially dismantle the pressure felt by these small players when Europe’s great powers decide singlehandedly to go to war – as in the case of Mali.
Without clearly stated and to whatever extent possible, publicly endorsed principles for interventionism and warfare, Europe’s small states will have difficulties adopting anything but a yes-man policy when their strategic big power allies favour military intervention. The elaboration of a charter for intervention would furthermore enable European states, big and small, prior to acute political crises, to decide what balance between security, freedom-rights and alliance-formation truly best serves their interest.
It is an urgent task for Europe to proactively elaborate such publicly endorsed principles for when, why and how to intervene militarily. It is more likely than not that the intervention in Mali will generate further militant activism in the Sahel region. North Africa is going through a period of prolonged instability in which only the regimes in Morocco and Algeria have survived more or less intact until now. Furthermore the entire world is holding its breath waiting to see just how devastating the impact from the ongoing crisis in Syria will be for the regional security balances in the Middle East. In that situation the sudden launch of military intervention in Mali by France and the equally rushed decision by the Danish parliament to back the intervention with military means calls for a broader European debate about what politics of intervention Europe should have for the future.