DAKAR, Senegal — The prospect of a regional military intervention against Islamist and rebel groups in control of northern Mali is gaining momentum, but the International Crisis Group (ICG) cautions that a hasty military deployment - without first resolving the post-coup political crisis in Bamako - could make the situation worse, not better.
The March 22 military coup in Bamako cleared the way for Tuareg separatists and Islamist militants to seize nearly two-thirds of Mali's territory in the north. Islamist group Ansar Dine and its al-Qaida affiliated allies have since edged out other rebel groups for control, sparking international alarm that the area will become a terrorist safe haven - a so-called "Afghanistan in Africa."
West African regional bloc ECOWAS continues to ready its troops, and France says a regional military operation remains a possibility. Malians, both in the north and the south, have largely rejected the occupation and are anxious to regain the territory.
Plea for careful deliberation
Not so fast, however, says the global security think-tank the International Crisis Group.
In a report released Wednesday, ICG says an outside military intervention under current conditions could turn Mali into a "new front in the war on terror" and plunge what was once one of West Africa's most stable democracies into further chaos.
ICG West Africa Director Gilles Yabi said recapturing the north hinges first on getting a strong central government in place in Bamako.
Yabi said the focus in recent weeks on the question of military action is a dangerous way to look at the crisis. He said there is still confusion in Bamako about who is really in control and the Malian army is disorganized following the coup. Under these conditions, he said, an outside military intervention that likely would involve Malian troops is risky.
Call for unity government
The current transitional government, put in place in April after regional mediation, remains weak, unpopular and subject to meddling by soldiers who staged the coup. The interim president has been in France since late May when an angry mob beat him up in the presidential palace.
African leaders want Mali to form a new government of national unity by the end of this month, and the current interim government says it is open to the possibility.
ECOWAS experts are currently in Bamako taking stock of the nation's military, after which Mali's interim government says it can request the backing of the U.N. Security Council for a regional intervention force.
ICG says ECOWAS does not appear to grasp the complexity of the social landscape of northern Mali. Diving prematurely into military action risks stoking inter-communal tensions, the group says, as well as making West African nations the target of terrorist attacks that they are not prepared to deal with.
Security issues called paramount
ICG's Yabi said dialogue should remain an option.
Yabi said for now, the crisis is localized within Mali's borders. He said an uncontrolled military intervention could push the conflict into neighboring countries, which would have much more serious regional repercussions. He said that while terrorist elements in northern Mali are a serious concern, they are not the only armed groups up there. He said the diversity of the overlapping armed groups on the ground would complicate any outside military offensive.
Tuareg separatist group, the MNLA, has given indications that it could renounce its claims to independence. The African Union has called on Ansar Dine to distance itself from foreign terrorist allies and come to the negotiating table.
The International Crisis Group says "it would be wise to ignore calls for war and continue with existing initiatives to promote a political settlement of the conflict - without, however, neglecting security issues."