The Magazine

Hope for Mali

Go ahead and vote, but be sure to have the protection of Western airpower.

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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The town of Kidal, about 200 miles north of Gao, the big hub on the Niger River in eastern Mali, is hot and dry, and its police and electricity function erratically. The town, whose population is about 25,000, fell under the control of forces hostile to Mali’s central government in Bamako, which is 950 miles to the south and east, in April 2012. The rebel forces are composed of young men with little experience outside desert warfare and banditry, and their use of government offices appears to have been more a matter of personal convenience than administrative continuity. 

Election posters in Gao, northern Mali

Election posters in Gao, northern Mali


The 2012 war was launched by Tuareg tribesmen, who claim a large swath of Mali north of the Niger, which they consider their historic homeland, the Azawad, with Kidal as its capital. Following a lightning campaign in which they drove out the ill-trained and poorly supplied Malian garrisons in the north, they lost control of Kidal and the other population centers they had seized (or, in their view, liberated) in January and February to al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists who entered the fray. However, after imposing sharia in such historic cities as Timbuktu and Gao, the jihadists, whose leader is a veteran of Mali’s Tuareg revolts named Iyag Ag Ghali, crossed the Niger in January of this year, proclaiming their intention to seize Bamako and establish a West African caliphate.

French forces airlifted in the nick of time from bases in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso stopped the jihad on the river and in a two-month campaign defeated the rebel forces. The secularist factions among the rebels, organized as the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), reentered Kidal. The French troops advised the Malians marching in their rear to stay out of Kidal until terms could be reached with the MNLA. This was achieved late this June under the auspices of Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaore. 

The Ouagadougou Accords, as the agreement is called, have two key features aimed at restoring peace and harmony and thwarting the advance of the jihad into black Africa. They depend on the completion of a cycle of elections, beginning on July 28 with a presidential election originally scheduled for last year but postponed because of war and unrest, including a coup d’état. The “international community,” which in this case means Mali’s West African neighbors, France, and the United States, has been unanimous in insisting on restoring democracy, such as it is practiced in Mali. 

The first key provision of the accords is that the country’s territorial integrity is not up for grabs, and the second is that negotiations between the government in Bamako and the MNLA should take place as quickly as possible to redesign the governance of the north. This could move Mali toward a federal system that would satisfy many of the northern tribes that have felt neglected or oppressed by the southerners since independence in 1960. Or it could simply buy both sides time that they would use to prepare for still another round of fighting. 

The drama of a jihadist invasion of black Africa has been considerable and ominous; the human tragedy in Mali has been enormous, even by African standards. The famous arc of crisis has, in effect, descended several parallels southward: Mali has been the main stage, though by no means the only one, of a vast front in the war of civilizations, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Notwithstanding the success of French and Chadian arms in the first half of 2013 with the discreet support of the United States, the years ahead are fraught with danger and uncertainty.

Is there a lesson in the past two years of Mali mischief for American policymakers? Observers in France and Mali note that U.S. policy has worked toward the restoration of the status quo ante, while advancing its long-term military containment strategy in Africa. 

Washington cut off most aid, as U.S. law requires, following the March 2012 coup d’état against President Amadou Tamani Touré by young army officers (American-trained but apparently inattentive to the civics lessons), who accused him of corruption to the point of enabling the northern insurgency. They argued that the once-popular, consensual president had subverted the country through mismanagement and collusion with the Tuareg gangs that had turned the north into a lawless and lucrative zone of drug-smuggling and hostage-taking and finally jihadist insurgency. 

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