The Mess In Mali: The Logic Of ‘Unintended Consequences’ – OpEd


The intentional misreading of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 resulted in NATO’s violent, though predictable, ‘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 the North African region.

Mali was the first major victim of NATO’s intervention in Libya. 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, 2011, 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 almost never considered a viable political player by the UN, NATO or any interventionist Western power. But despite lacking in efforts to effectively challenge NATO’s war assignment in Africa, AU members were fully aware that NATO was barely concerned 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 regions are glued together by a delicate balance – due to the messy colonial legacy inherited from colonial powers – and Mali is no exception.

“Is this all NATO’s fault?” asked Dan Murphy in the Christian Science Monitor. “Not exactly. But the law of unintended consequences is (as usual) rearing its head. In this case, the successful popular uprising against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, which was substantially aided by the air power of NATO members, has sent Mali tumbling back into chaos, something that neither France nor the US (two of the major backers of the war to oust Qaddafi) are happy about.”

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 Islamists 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-Qaeda 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.

“Did Mali lose Timbuktu because NATO saved Benghazi?” asked Gregory Mann, in a foreign policy article on April 5. “It is undeniable that, as a consequence of the Libyan campaign, a stronger, more intense insurgency in the Malian Sahara was not only predictable but predicted. Everyone who was watching saw it coming from afar.”

Speaking to the British Guardian, former UN regional envoy Robert Fowler reeled against NATO: “Whatever the motivation of the principal NATO belligerents (in ousting Qaddafi), 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 destabilization 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, Mann tried to undermine the fact that Sanogo, the leader of the coup in Mali, “had American military training, and briefly affected a U.S. 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, cooperation between Sahalien armies and the United States, and counterterrorism programs 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 model (Al Jazeera, April 6).

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-Qaeda and their allies.

It is difficult to believe that despite years of US-French involvement in Mali and the surrounding region, the bedlam wasn’t, at the very least, predicted. 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 Per 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 a statement by Nicole Dalrymple, an AFRICOM spokeswoman.

What is clear is that the ‘mess in Mali’ might be an opportunity for another intervention, which mainstream media sources are already rationalizing. A Washington Post editorial on April 5 counseled: “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 Islamist militants – in a neighboring state.”

Unintended consequences?


Ramzy Baroud

Ramzy Baroud ( is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of His book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London), now available on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *