What Mali Can Teach Us: A Discussion on the Primacy of Civil Authority in Rebuilding the Security Sector

On July 9, 2013, the Stimson Center’s Future of Peace Operations program, the Alliance for Peacebuilding, Mali Watch, and NDU’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies hosted an event on “What Mali Can Teach Us: A Discussion on the Primacy of Civil Authority in Rebuilding the Security Sector.” According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “the meeting was convened against the backdrop of the recent lifting of the state of emergency and the start of campaigning for the July 28 elections, and aimed to explore options for asserting civil supremacy in security sector reform/transformation and emphasizing peacebuilding and productive civil-military relations in post-elections Mali.” Panelists included:

  • Amb. Al Maamoun Baba Lamine Keita, Malian Ambassador to the United States
  • Melanie Cohen-Greenberg, President & CEO, Alliance for Peacebuilding & Co-Chair of Mali Watch
  • Vivian Lowery Derryck, President & CEO, Bridges Institute & Co-Chair of Mali Watch
  • Ret. Col. Christopher Holshek, Senior Fellow, Alliance for Peacebuilding

In the introduction to his remarks, Amb. Keita identified the paralysis of Mali’s institutions, ruinous state of the army, and the presence of transnational criminal groups within Mali among the main challenges Mali will need to overcome in order to restore stability to the country. In response, the panelists highlighted challenges facing Mali’s security sector as it moves forward. Three common threads ran through the remarks of all panelists: the changing role of the weakened Malian military, the post-conflict peace and reconciliation process, and proposals for U.S. policy as it engages in rebuilding Mali.

The Malian army’s role in society

The state of the Malian army continues to be a challenge to the stability of Mali, according to Amb. Keita. During the initial phases of Mali’s civil war, it struggled to secure the country’s north in combat against the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), prompting intervention by French forces with American support. The panelists were critical of the direction and quality of the training Malian forces have received from U.S. trainers. With the mandate of the Malian army shifting from a war-fighting and governing body to one under peacetime civilian oversight, Vivian Derryck noted the type of preparation its troops require is changing. Despite the fact that the Malian army is very unlikely to engage a conventional land army in combat anytime soon, “almost all the training that [the U.S.] gives them is based on battalion-level maneuvers,” according to Col. Holshek.

Alternatively, the speakers emphasized that successful management of civil-military relations and the prevention of another military coup were more pressing issues requiring international engagement. At present, democratic institutions remain weak, which does not encourage the military to maintain non-interference in the political process, according to Amb. Keita. He warned that some elements may move to intervene in domestic politics if the military establishment feels its present or future status in Malian society is uncertain, or if the military’s enlisted men lack adequate pay, or provisions. As he phrased it, the average Malian soldier “wants to feel like they have a future in their country”. He noted the need to “stabilize” the civil-military relationship and professionalize the armed forces as Mali returns to democracy.

Future Reform

As Mali moves towards a peace and reconciliation process, the speakers made the case that Mali’s military will have an important role to play as a stakeholder in Malian peace. In particular, Col. Holshek highlighted the role of the army in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of MNLA fighters and security-sector reform (SSR) in determining how Mali will move forward towards a peaceful society.

Cohen-Greenberg argued that Mali needs to “map out the fragility” of its government as it seeks to reform the security sector. Such an analysis will allow it to assess its greatest weaknesses and best increase its capacity to govern. Balance is needed, she said, for government structures – rebuilding the Malian state will require incorporating both civilian and military elements in institution building, as well as formal and informal justice institutions. She underscored that international engagement in the Mali must go beyond a security-focused engagement – foreign actors must “avoid creating winners and losers” by favoring Mali’s security forces. Instead, there should be a focus on creating strong institutions in the peacebuilding process.

Holshek and Derryck argued that a key element of SSR will be demarcating the relationship between the army, gendarmerie and police forces. During the country’s war, the international community saw the Malian army as the main actor tasked with defeating the MNLA separatists and regaining control of the remote northern regions of the Sahara. Likewise, the military received the lion’s share of security assistance offered from donor countries. However, Holshek pointed out that the country’s gendarmerie is normally tasked with providing for Mali’s internal security. The lopsided aid balance militarized the country’s internal policing, which risks undercutting progress towards stronger democratic institutions. With transnational jihadist and drug-trafficking networks operating across the Sahara, both Holshek and Derryck agreed Mali must rebalance the responsibilities of its army and gendarmerie so as to ensure security while creating a stable political structure.

U.S. Military Training Recommendations

Broaden education and training: Derryck stressed the need for Malian soldiers, particularly enlisted men, to receive education that was tailored to meet Malian needs. With a weak education system, remedial education to improve literacy would go a long way to improving the effectiveness of the training. She also proposed instruction in “military civics” – with the logic that exposure to education from U.S. soldiers on civil-military relations could reduce the likelihood of the military overstepping its bounds and upsetting Mali’s nascent democracy. Small steps, Derryck said, like instructing Malian regulars in French or providing anti-corruption training, could both help professionalize the Malian military and strengthen Mali-U.S. mil-mil relations.

Engage multilaterally: All the panelists agreed that U.S. policy should focus on working multilaterally with Mali — instead of bilaterally — through actors such as the European Union (EU), African Union (AU), and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Regional criminal groups threaten Mali’s stability, and multiple panelists said establishing relationships with regional militaries will be essential to Mali’s success as the country works with ECOWAS, AU and others to combat terrorism across borders. Additionally, cooperation with bodies like the EU will enable the U.S. to synchronize security assistance efforts in Mali with its allies. Holshek argued that would include adopting international standards for military training, a current weakness at the Pentagon. Asserting “there are very few people in the Pentagon who know how the UN operates”, he pointed to the UN’s Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) program as an example of a useful framework for U.S. trainers. At a time of domestic budget-consciousness, international standards would allow allies to build on U.S. efforts, maximizing the effectiveness of U.S. assistance.

This post was written by CIP intern Alex Dobyan.

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