With the fall last weekend of the northern Mali garrison town of Tessalit, and its airstrip, to Tuareg secessionist forces, U.S. counter-terror policy in Africa is dealt a stunning setback. A USAF airlift brought supplies on February 14 to the besieged town, which reportedly was overwhelmed by a column of Tuareg fighters in early February only to be retaken by a Mali Defense Forces (MDF) column a few days later, which then found itself – with the military families – surrounded by a more numerous and better armed rebel detachment. Bu there are no reports of further U.S. involvement.

Mali is a lynchpin of U.S. strategy in the region. This defeat, qualified by the Tuareg as a rout and by the Malian government as an orderly tactical retreat, is certain to cause consternation in at least some corridors of Washington, which for the most part does not know where Mali is.

The State Department and AFRICOM (U.S. Army Africa Command) were silent on the implications of last week’s event other than to reassert support for Mali’s liberal political and economic reforms.

Regional observers, as well as spokesmen for the competing forces, remain sharply divided regarding the significance of the battle for Tessalit, whose military base and airstrip give it a strategic significance in the continuing low-level conflicts for the control of the southern Sahara. The Tuareg MNLA (from the French acronym for the Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Anawad) insist they are a secular movement concerned with liberating their “colonized” homeland, defined as the northern third of Mali and possibly some real estate in neighboring Niger to the east, Mauritania to the west, and Algeria to the north. The Mali government claims the MNLA is a small group of “armed bandits,” not representative of the Tuareg, who have made common cause with Salafists and ordinary gangsters who have used the southern Sahara as a sanctuary for many years.

Governments of neighboring countries are divided in the correct approach to take to the Tuareg question, some, notably Mauritania’s, preferring to make a sharp distinction between the Tuareg and the Salafist organizations, particularly the AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), a column of whose fighters reportedly was found in northern Mali and pulverized by the Mauritanian air force a few days ago. The Algerians and Nigeriens lean toward negotiations with the Tuareg which would take account of their grievances. This has been the position of Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Toure, but both the Tuareg and his own hard-liners accuse him of having in practice let the situation drift, giving their opportunity to Tuareg activists demanding full secession.

Although Mali has a long history of unrest in its wild north, it is impossible not to worry that the conjunction of armed conflicts across the Sahel, including notably the extreme violence in Nigeria’s northern states, signals something more than a dress rehearsal for the opening of a broad new front in the global wars of revolutionary Islam, wars that are directed as much against Muslim populations in fragile societies as against the West.

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