West African leaders are intensifying their plans for military intervention in Mali, mobilizing a force of nearly 3,300 soldiers to spearhead the mission, despite their failure to win approval from the United Nations.
Senior military officers are expected to arrive in Mali this week to begin detailed planning for the military intervention. One of their goals, according to Ivory Coast's army chief, is the "re-conquest of the north" – where Islamists and separatist rebels have seized power.
If the West African troops enter Mali, their first task will be to protect and stabilize its fragile democratic institutions, which were badly weakened by an army coup in March.
But they would also aim to bolster Mali's army and help it dislodge the rebels who have captured the northern two-thirds of Mali, turning it into a vast haven for Islamist terrorists.
At a meeting in Ivory Coast this weekend, West African military chiefs said they had secured commitments from Nigeria, Senegal and Niger to provide the bulk of the planned 3,270 troops in the intervention force. The African Union is also pushing hard for military action, asking the UN Security Council for its "urgent" support.
Any military action in Mali would be fraught with danger, complexity, and the risk of worsening the crisis. House-to-house fighting in Timbuktu or other northern cities would be a logistical nightmare and would cause heavy damage to historic treasures. The West African troops do not even have proper vehicles for the rugged desert terrain of northern Mali.
The UN Security Council said last week that it would "examine" the African Union's proposals for intervention in Mali. But it refused to give formal approval, and it asked for further information on the logistics and financing of a possible military force.
The Africans are not alone in their push for military action in Mali. Two major powers, France and the United States, are known to be extremely concerned about the Islamist radical groups that helped capture the north.
The United States is already using small unmarked airplanes to spy on the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the militant Islamist groups in northern Mali, according to a report last week in the Washington Post.
The U.S. turboprop airplanes, loaded with hidden sensors and surveillance technology, are searching for AQIM from secret bases in Mauritania and Burkina Faso, the report said. The United States has also spent millions of dollars on anti-terrorism military training in Mali – although some of its trainees later became leaders of the army coup in Mali this year, to the Pentagon's embarrassment.
France, meanwhile, says it would support military intervention in Mali if it is approved by the UN Security Council. As the former colonial power, France is a key player in Mali. Six of its citizens are currently held hostage by AQIM, probably in Mali's north.
West African leaders have warned that jihadi fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan are helping train the Islamists in Mali. Even the Nigerian radical group Boko Haram is reported to have a presence in northern Mali now.
"There is a threat of terrorist groups setting up in northern Mali," said France's new president, François Hollande, a week ago. "There is outside intervention that is destabilizing Mali and setting up groups whose vocation goes well beyond Mali, in Africa and perhaps beyond."
Until recently, Mali was a favourite of Canada and other Western countries, widely seen as democratic and liberal. It received more than $100-million in aid annually from Canada alone, and Canadian mining companies have been heavily involved in Mali.
But the foreign aid was suspended after the military coup in March, and the country fell into turmoil when the north was captured by a loose coalition of Tuareg separatists and Islamist radicals, including AQIM and another Islamist group called Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith). Much of their weaponry and some of their fighters came from Libya after the overthrow last year of its longtime leader, Moammar Gadhafi.
The rebels have declared independence in northern Mali, but they have been plagued by feuding and even armed clashes between the Tuareg militia and the Islamist fighters. At least three people were reportedly wounded in fighting last week between Ansar Dine and Tuareg rebels in the ancient city of Timbuktu.
The Islamists are seeking to create a theocratic state, based on Islamic sharia law. They have raised their black flag over their strongholds in the north, shutting down nightclubs and ordering women to wear veils.