With U.S. forces in Mali

Mali Defense Forces abandoned the towns of Ménaka and Léré to Tuareg rebels over the weekend of February 4-5, following two weeks of back-and-forth assaults by both sides that underscored the gravity of the situation in this staunch U.S. ally in West Africa.

Ménaka, in the northeast, Léré in the northwest, and Kidal in the far northeast demarcate the Malian portion of the vast triangle in the southwestern Sahara that the Tuareg call the Azawad, their traditional heartland. The stakes in the recent Tuareg offensive include the security, if not the actual possession, of the important Niger river town of Gao in the east and Timbuktu in the center-north.

Gao, a major commercial port and population center, has not been reported to be under attack. But conflicting claims by both sides suggest Timbuktu or its suburbs have been the scene of heavy fighting in the past week. Government spokesmen concede the fall of Niafounké, the next major river town (and a county capital) south of Timbuktu. Niafounké is only 125 miles from Mopti, gateway to sub-Saharan Mali and center of a monthlong military exercise jointly sponsored by the United States and Mali and involving elements from the U.S. Army and Air Force as well as several of Mali’s neighbors.

American specialists in security and counterterrorism, including Special Forces units, have been visiting Mali for several years as part of a long-term commitment to bolstering the Sahel countries’ abilities to resist attacks by jihadists and assorted gangsters—they sometimes overlap—who use the Sahara as a sanctuary. The U.S. Army’s Africa Command, which has been functional since the mid-2000s, trains African militaries in the humanitarian as well as security uses of the skills they are learning from our forces. In a complex environment that is political as well as military, and facing a situation in which refugees are leaving northern Mali for Niger and Mauritania, the Malians and their neighbors are likely to find a humanitarian capability is needed alongside better equipment, training, and motivation.

Meanwhile in Mali’s capital, Bamako, which lies on the river about 280 miles southwest of Timbuktu, President Amadou Toumani Touré met with political leaders over the weekend to inform them that his intention remains to step down on schedule in three months following the election of his successor, in conformity with the constitution’s two-term limit. At the same time his spokesmen indicated that the government is open to negotiations with the rebels concerning their grievances but not their territorial demands.

Touré, known as “President ATT,” remains extremely popular in the predominantly black-African-populated regions of central and southern Mali, and observers note that his refusal to use the emergency in the north to extend his term represents a regard for constitutional government unusual in this part of Africa.

While ATT, in the hope of forestalling the Tuareg rebels from exploiting the political uncertainty in Bamako, is demanding a consensus on security issues among the governing and opposition parties, it has not escaped notice here that the rebels are also banking on the coincidence of presidential politics in the key countries involved in the northern Mali crisis.

Mali’s presidential contenders inevitably will be under stress to sharpen their positions if the crisis deepens and pressure mounts to develop a winning, or at least a clear, response to it. Already, there have been demonstrations in Bamako and elsewhere, led by members of military families, calling on the government either to supply the Mali Defense Forces (MDF) with adequate equipment, including munitions, or to pull the troops out of battleground areas.

But Tuareg strategy is a factor in presidential politics elsewhere as well.

The running issue in Senegal, the key neighbor to the west that provides Mali with an outlet to the sea for its exports, notably cotton, is whether President Abdoulaye Wade will be able to determine his succession or even stay in power beyond the time he had pledged to retire.

France, regularly accused by Malians of covertly supporting the Tuareg cause as a way of destabilizing the Sahel countries and making them more susceptible to French influence, is in the midst of its own presidential campaign, in which Nicolas Sarkozy is, not entirely without reason, accused of plotting foreign policy surprises to serve his political ends.

Algeria, the major regional power, is fixated on who will succeed its ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. And of course the United States is in the early stages of what promises to be a heated presidential contest in which clear thinking about foreign crises will not be a priority among politicians.

Last week’s fighting and MDF losses, confirmed by MDF spokesman Capt. Seydou Coulibalay, indicate that the reports concerning the collapse of the Mali-Tuareg peace signed in 1996 are only too accurate. A key question for American military analysts is the extent to which the Tuareg MNLA (National Liberation Movement of the Azawad), which is claiming credit for the offensive, is, at least tactically, working with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI). The Tuareg are not known for violent religious zealotry, but as a small people with true grievances, they are no strangers to the adage about the enemy of one’s enemy.

There is a consensus among observers here that Mali is suffering some of the unintended consequences of NATO’s splendid little war in support of Libya’s anti-Qaddafi forces last year. They note that the renewal of irredentism among the Tuareg and the resort to arms of several of the new or newly reconstituted “national liberation” movements amongst this nomadic Berber people, culturally distinct from the Mandé-related groups in Mali’s south, followed directly on the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime. Tuareg serving in the Libyan armed forces, as well as auxiliaries who fought for the regime during the civil war, returned home, according to military analysts, with huge stocks of modern weaponry and a renewed appreciation of military power as an instrument of political change.

AQMI benefited from the Libyan civil war to the degree it has involved itself in the new Libyan regime but also, perversely, to the degree it has found ways of convincing the Tuareg that they can be helpful in the ancient Saharan conflicts left unresolved—in some ways exacerbated—by the end of colonialism 50 years ago. Although there is no evidence AQMI fighters took part in last month’s offensive in the north, an upsurge of their hit-and-run activities has been felt throughout the region. Malian officials insist they are dealing with bandits flying under the false flags of Islam and tribal-ethnic politics.

Keen to protect the “Malian model” of democratic and economic liberalization in Africa, American diplomats and military officials find themselves dealing with a new front in the continuing clash of civilizations. Surely they are prepared for all the complexities that—one may hope—they have learned to expect.

Roger Kaplan, a longtime contributor, is embedded with the 53rd Airlift Squadron, United States Air Force.

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