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Mischief in Mali

A model African country confronts subversion—with U.S. help.

Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Mopti, Bamako

Map of Mali

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.

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