Mopti, Bamako

Mali Defense Forces (MDF) backed by attack helicopters made a successful counterthrust against a column of Tuareg rebels assisted, according to Mali military sources, by jihadist fighters over several days in the middle of February, routing them from the approaches of Tessalit, a village in the far north of this embattled West African country that is key to America’s strategy for keeping jihadist forces out of black Africa.

The U.S. strategy calls for the drawing of a line in the sand across the Sahel, the region on the southern edge of the Sahara. Mali, vast as California and Texas combined, is critical because Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other bands of violent Salafists have found a circumstantial ally in the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), which is bent on carving out a nation for the Tuareg, a Berber people native to this region. The proposed new nation would cover much of Mali’s Saharan north.

Mali’s population is only 14 million, most of which lives along the great Niger River, which flows lazily across the middle of the country, separating the fertile south from the barren north. A breach in the Sahelian line here would immensely complicate the U.S. plan for partnerships with sub-Saharan nations, based on mutual strategic interests and a commitment to free trade and free markets as the framework for the kind of development to which Mali has committed itself for the past 20 years.

Reports of fighting around the garrison town of Tessalit were picked up by journalists in the capital, Bamako, and credited to MDF sources, who indicated the helicopters supporting the Malians were flown by contract pilots from Ukraine. Odd as this unconfirmed detail may sound, it is not untypical in African wars. The MDF, some of whose air force Americans are training, numbers only about 7,000.

If the sources are correct, the Tuareg strategy consisted of encircling Tessalit (population 1,500). But the rebels failed to foresee the strength of the Malian Army’s counterattack, lulled perhaps by the somewhat passive reaction of Mali’s leaders when the rebellion broke out in mid-January. The MDF garrison, according to its own spokesmen, withdrew after the initial Tuareg assault but regrouped under two officers with reputations for aggressive combat leadership, Col.-Major Alhaji Ag Gamou and Col. Abidine Guindo. On the last weekend in February they claimed control of most of Tessalit after inflicting severe losses on the rebels, whose spokesmen counterclaimed they made an orderly retreat with men and vehicles. The Mali paratroops picked up reinforcements near Gao and, crucially, assurances from the government that there would be no appeasement of armed sedition—a sore point among many officers.

The action in Tessalit brings some bitter respite after a string of bad news, in particular evidence of the massacre in late January of nearly 100 disarmed soldiers in the garrison town of Aguelhoc, slaughtered in a mass atrocity that bears the imprint of armed Islamism. By the third week of February, the rebellion’s raiders had reached villages near Mopti, a town of strategic and economic importance hundreds of miles south of the areas claimed by the MNLA.

Whether there really is a Tuareg national movement, or the MNLA and other militant bands represent only themselves or their tribes, is difficult to ascertain absent normal political life. Northern Mali has been the scene of Tuareg rebellions since independence from France in 1960. The Tuareg, who number about half a million in Mali (and as many elsewhere, mainly in Algeria and Niger), include many who are perfectly well integrated into the social, economic, and official life of the country (including its army). Nevertheless, they sometimes claim neglect and abandonment as the source of their discontent, though there is no evidence their leaders could rally a majority for an independent state. Liberation movements, of course, are rarely concerned with political majorities. Their detractors accuse them of ignoring the issue of democratic representation, preferring to work on the principle that if they can keep raising demands—which in the case of the Tuareg could affect Mauritania, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—they may eventually succeed in imposing an agenda that no majority voted for.

Indeed, there is no mistaking the international dimension of the Tuareg question. They are a nomadic people who were left on the sidelines of history when the end of the colonial period created borders that made no sense to them. Mali’s foreign minister was in Algiers almost as soon as the crisis began in January, seeking a way to jump-start Algeria’s longstanding mediation efforts. The president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Campaore, met with Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré and called for “dialogue.” Touré is all for it, but the MNLA has said it will talk only about secession.

While Mali hardliners claim the popular “President ATT” encouraged the rebellion through years of neglect of the army’s fighting mission and an inability to focus on security in the north, the Tuareg rebels claim that talk is cheap, as the experience of failed peace accords (the most recent one signed in 2008) and broken truces over the past 50 years shows. If they cannot get what they feel they need for the well-being of their region, they say, they prefer to keep fighting. But southerners respond that sponging off the south is cheap too, and happens to be the usual m.o. of the Tuareg. “They are either sponging or stealing, when they are not killing,” one told me. “But you will never see them working.”

This view surely reflects the intensity of the current crisis. Malians, in fact, have evolved a remarkably consensual and laid-back attitude toward the multitribalism that characterizes their country (like others in the region). The anger directed at the Tuareg has a certain tribal or even racial basis that it would be vain to blame on one side or another, but in the current context it reflects disappointment more than hatred. Even severe critics of President ATT give him credit for promoting a united Mali and not playing the tribal card, just as he rejected the single-party card of previous postcolonial regimes and insisted that pluralistic democracy, however flawed, was a basic requirement for progress. Progress, however, comes slowly. Most Malians do not vote in elections and live on scarcely a dollar a day. USAID is building the country’s first highway linking north and south. In the north, where poverty is most acute, leaders of the Songh ai group have said change is inhibited by Tuareg banditry. Indeed, during the 1990s the Songhai organized their own self-defense militias; these evolved into improvement associations during the years of democratic opening promoted by Touré, and they are at present among the main supporters of hardliners in the army.

The Tuareg, however, are much set upon and much maligned. In common with other Saharan tribes, they have a bad rap as a result of historical circumstances they never made. They have beautiful music—introduced to many Americans through the success of the Tuareg ensemble Tinariwen at this year’s Grammy Awards—an admirably spare cuisine, astonishing resilience in a harsh environment, and, pertinent to the present context, one of the most intensely tribal cultures in the world.

The significance of this characteristic is that it underscores the need for caution in referring to a “Tuareg problem.” Many Malians deny there is such a thing, pointing to the perfectly successful integration of Tuareg in areas outside the Sahara. They say rather that small numbers of militants have a problem, and some observers note that the militants come repeatedly from the same tribes, who usually have no more love for neighboring Tuareg tribes (or such nomadic Saharans as the Sahrawis of the desert’s far west, themselves involved in a decades-old dispute over territory with Morocco) than they have for other Malian groups.

The other regional presidents play their own parts. The strategy of Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel-aziz is regarded with suspicion in Bamako. A proponent of a hard line against the jihadist bands from AQIM and other remnants of Algeria’s 1990s civil war, Abdelaziz is thought by leaders of Mali’s southern groups (who distrust him as a “white Moor”) to want to use the Tuareg against the jihadists. But Malian hardliners disagree, deeming both Tuareg and jihadists little more than criminal bands specialized in kidnapping and drug-running.

The Moroccans’ hard line toward the Sahrawis, and the Algerians’ contrasting support for their demand for a referendum on their status, show how difficult it is to forge a political consensus on the Sahara.

Mahamadou Issoufou, the president of Niger, to the east, argues that Touré’s current problem stems from failing to enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward the Tuareg returning from the Libyan civil war last year with huge stocks of advanced weapons. Many Malians share this view, though obviously it benefits from hindsight. Quite a few Tuareg served in the Libyan Army for many years (rising in the ranks and adopting Libyan citizenship), while others were brought in to defend the regime from the insurrection in Benghazi, which was supported by a truncated NATO led by France and largely supplied in munitions and tactical intelligence by the United States.

Issoufou warned early on that the unintended consequences of the Libyan crisis would include the seizure of power in Benghazi and Tripoli by Islamist extremists. But he also foresaw what he called the “Somalization” of the country: a complete breakdown of central authority that would facilitate the scattering of well-equipped fighters toward the points south and west whence they had originated. Niger itself fought off an intense Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. Its policy toward returning “Libyans” was to disarm them when they approached their homes in Niger, while offering programs to assimilate them into either the armed forces or civilian life. Thus far this seems to have paid off.

Implicitly, Issoufou deplored Touré’s laissez-faire approach of letting the “Libyan” Tuareg make their way back to Mali without interference, despite the almost perennial history of Tuareg armed militancy. No less implicit is Issoufou’s criticism of the Western powers that intervened in the Libyan affair apparently with no concern for its possible perverse consequences. This is all the more ironic as the United States has been building, painstakingly, something like a containment policy in the Sahel to try to avert the opening of a new jihadist front there.

A recent mission pursuant to this policy, planned and led by the 369th Sustainment Brigade with help from other U.S. Army and National Guard units and the Air Force’s 19th Airlift Wing, arrived in Mali shortly after the outbreak of the Tuareg offensive. While that was entirely coincidental from the American perspective—the exercise was planned long in advance and fits into a multiyear program—from the MNLA and AQIM angle it represented an opportunity to preempt an agenda based on compromise and democracy.

It certainly had the effect of spoiling the broad consensus in Mali to let Touré finish his presidency calmly, put through some constitutional changes strengthening the executive (and the judiciary), and watch a smooth transition after a free and fair election. Even Touré’s most loyal opposition, in the person of former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, quickly broke ranks, stating in early February that the security situation in the north was being neglected—along with everything else, he added. This took a certain chutzpah, coming from a pillar of Mali’s political establishment in the past 20 years. He is his party’s candidate for president, however, and politics brings out this sort of thing in politicians. But there have been criticisms all along that ATT is overly mindful of getting high marks from the EU, the State Department, and the IMF.

The prescriptions of Western globalists, inevitably, are viewed with less satisfaction in the Malian countryside than they are in Washington and Brussels. Mali’s cotton growers, for example—the country is Africa’s leading cotton producer—ask why they should play by free trade rules and put up with expensive credit to satisfy accountants in air-conditioned buildings on the other side of the globe when America and Europe continue to subsidize their agribusinesses.

All this seems far away from massacres and bloody counterattacks (the Malian Army claimed 100 rebels killed in Tessalit), but it provides a hint of the patience that will be required of Americans in our African strategy. Africa’s calamities and contradictions provide innumerable opportunities for mischief because they cause so many distractions. As President Issoufou himself pointed out, a few weeks of fighting in Mali are threatening his country with a humanitarian crisis, as refugees for whom he has no resources flee the trouble next door. The fighting has produced 130,000 refugees by the last count, who find themselves in Mauritania and Niger, as well as internally displaced in Mali. This comes on top of the burden of Nigeriens returning home from a Libya that no longer wants them. There will be no more remittances from them, but there may well be demands. All this at a time when the Sahel faces a water crisis requiring huge expenditures it cannot afford.

The most principled Malian opposition to the ATT administration, the leftist SADI (African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence), was quick to condemn the rebellion, while demanding greater social investment. SADI accused the government’s security police of using the emergency as an excuse to harass its leadership. But, desirable as social investments may be, it is not true that the “root causes” of political violence—that of the Tuareg or AQIM or any other group—lie in social or economic conditions. The root causes of violence are violent men, and when they receive the manna of vast arsenals of modern weaponry, at least in part as a result of the poorly conceived strategies of a smart-but-stupid French president feckless enough to launch a war on the basis of a phone call from a bored man-of-letters with T. E. Lawrence fantasies, they produce political violence. Malians welcome our help; after all they have put up with from the French, they certainly are happy to find Western friends who are neither condescending nor cruel.

The blue men of the desert, as the Tuareg are sometimes called, may try another hit-and-run campaign, or they may retreat to their hiding places in the Ifoghas Adrar mountains above Tessalit, or wander away altogether—for a while. In the last days of February, both sides brought fresh troops to the village, whose control may be as much symbolic as strategic at this point. There is surely much the United States can do to help the Sahelians, but the first rule to be applied is caution. What strikes the Malians as most remarkable about their encounter with the 369th Brigade and the other American units they have met (and more will follow) is the mutual respect cultivated—indeed demanded—on the American side. We come and we see, but we have no intention of conquering. An American special operations team—or a Malian one—may sooner or later find itself with the feared Iyad Ag Ghaly, the man blamed for forging the tactical alliance between the MNLA and AQIM, in its crosshairs, and that will be what he himself asked for. But the long line in the sand will still need watching, and that can only be done by the Malians themselves and their neighbors.

Roger Kaplan, a longtime contributor, was embedded with the 369th Sustainment Brigade, New York National Guard.

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