In the latest turn of events in the decade-long war on terror, U.S. counter-terrorism policy in Africa was dealt a blow – or an opportunity – with the declaration of independence of the Azawad, the territory claimed by the Tuareg tribes of northern Mali.

The Tuareg national movement, the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), declared independence on April 5 for the Colorado-sized region north of the Niger river, following the withdrawal of Mali Defense Force troops from Kidal, Gao, and the legendary city of Timbuctu (in reality,, rather shabby in recent centuries), after weeks of combat.

Spokesmen for the Mali government and the MDF refer to the losses last month of the principal northern cities and hamlets, notably the important garrison town of Tessalit and the capture by the rebels of its nearby air-strip (used in February by the USAF to resupply the besieged garrison), as “tactical retreats,” but if reports are correct, the Tuareg fighters routed their opponents, sending hundreds of government soldiers into neighboring Niger and creating a civilian refugee crisis. According to the ICRC at least 100 thousand northern Malians are either internally displaced or have sought refuge from the fighting in Niger and Mauritania, which border Mali’s north to the east and west, respectively. The commanding officer of the Mali forces in Tessalit, Col. Elhadji Ag Galou, himself a Tuareg, reportedly defected to the MNLA following its troops’ capture of Kidal.

In the midst of the fighting, Mali army soldiers overthrew the democratically-elected and U.S.-supported government of President Amadou Toumani Toure, vowing to fight more vigorously for the restoration of their country’s territorial integrity and at the same time “clean up” what they described as an inefficient and corrupt regime. Since March 22 when the mutineers seized the presidential palace and the radio-TV building in Bamako, Mali’s capital, located on the Niger river in the southeast, Toure has been reported variously to be a prisoner of the junta, which calls itself the National Committee for Revival, Democracy, and the Strengthening of the State. (CNRDR, Comite National pour le Redressement, la Democratie, et la Restauration de l’Etat, in French), a refugee in the U.S. embassy (which its spokesperson denies), or in a safe location guarded by loyal troops, evidently the most likely.

The U.S., France, and ECOWAS (Economic Organization of West African States) have cut off aid to Mali, demanding the restoration of constitutional order. Mali’s borders and airports are closed. The U.S. and France expressed support for ECOWAS, and the French government indicated Thursday it would “support logistically,” though send no troops, should the organization decide to intervene militarily both against the junta and the new Tuareg nation. The U.S. State Department through Africa bureau spokesperson Hilary Renner announced the U.S. was cutting off aid to education and health programs, as well as military assistance, as long as the junta remains in power.

The reflex in favor of legitimacy and territorial integrity are to be expected, according to observers of African affairs, but the situation in northern Mali contains a number of contradictions which the U.S. and France and their African partners will have to consider. The leadership of the Azawad, speaking through MNLA spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher and the MNLA secretary general Billal Ag Acherif, insist they have been engaged in an anti-colonial struggle since before even Mali’s independence from France in 1960, and point out that they are, today, resolutely opposed to the Saharan jihadists of AQIM and the Tuareg jihadist movement Ansar Edine (“sons” or “guardians” of Islam).

Mali’s government, as well as the junta that overthrew it in March, insist on the contrary that the MNLA and the jihadists were in practice, if not always in spirit, allied in their war against Mali and the non-Tuareg peoples residing in the north. Although censuses in the region are inexact, observers count about half a million Tuareg in Mali and perhaps again that many in neighboring countries, give or take a quarter million. There are perhaps the same number of Songhai, Arab Moors, Peuls, and other groups in the north of Mali, whose entire population is between 12 and 15 million. The Tuareg, whom specialists in this sort of thing relate to the Berbers of North Africa, are indigenous to the Saharan-Sahel region and generally consider themselves quite distinct from sub-Saharan Africans (the feeling is mutual.)

As fighting ebbed in recent days with the retreat south of the Niger of the MDF, there have been reports of jihadists occupying certain neighborhoods in Gao, Timbuctu, and other localities. Their proclaimed goal is the creation of an Islamic state in the north, eventually in all of Mali and throughout the Sahel.

Both the legitimate authorities in Bamako and the putschists – who at least in the past two weeks seem to have enjoyed considerable popular support, largely on the strength of their proclaimed goal of taking back the north – continue to refer to the Tuareg forces of the MNLA as little better than “armed bandits” closely associated with the highwaymen, drug smugglers, and gun runners who long have used the southern Sahara as a sanctuary and hideout. Indeed, the jihadist forces, too, are regularly accused by regional authorities of being drenched in criminality, specializing in kidnapping and other heinous but lucrative acts.

The U.S., while recognizing the sharp differences among the regional powers, has for at least 10 years sought to encourage military and political cooperation across the region on the basis of a common interest in eradicating terrorism from the Sahara and preventing the contagion of jihadism to spread into sub-Saharan Africa, beginning with the Sahel.

This extremely poor region of desert and savannah is presently very much in play, with U.S. (as well as French) special forces fighting against terrorists in cooperation with regional militaries from Uganda, Kenya, and South Sudan in the east to Niger, Mali, and Mauritania in the west, passing by Nigeria’s north. The major regional power, Algeria, has received strong marks from the U.S. government for its assistance and cooperation in this policy. Several Algerian consular officials in Gao were taken prisoner, reportedly, by Ansar Edine elements, following the fall of the city. The assault appears to have been designed to impress U.S. assistant secretary of state Johnnie Carson, conferring even as it happened with the president and foreign minister of Algeria in Algiers.

The MNLA denies any responsibility in this affair and indeed regional observers are attentive to whether the anti-colonial and jihadist “tactical allies,” if such they were, are about to fall out among themselves now that the MDF has been defeated in the north – or if, on the contrary, their alliance turns out to be durable.

U.S. policy is at the very least likely to suffer a serious setback if instability persists in Mali and, per chance, spreads to its neighbors. Sources close to the Azawad leadership, however, hope that the U.S. will take seriously the national movement’s declarations of commitment to democratic and secular government, with all the strategic consequences that follow.

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