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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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Mahamadou Issoufou, the president of Niger, to the east, argues that Touré’s current problem stems from failing to enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward the Tuareg returning from the Libyan civil war last year with huge stocks of advanced weapons. Many Malians share this view, though obviously it benefits from hindsight. Quite a few Tuareg served in the Libyan Army for many years (rising in the ranks and adopting Libyan citizenship), while others were brought in to defend the regime from the insurrection in Benghazi, which was supported by a truncated NATO led by France and largely supplied in munitions and tactical intelligence by the United States. 

Issoufou warned early on that the unintended consequences of the Libyan crisis would include the seizure of power in Benghazi and Tripoli by Islamist extremists. But he also foresaw what he called the “Somalization” of the country: a complete breakdown of central authority that would facilitate the scattering of well-equipped fighters toward the points south and west whence they had originated. Niger itself fought off an intense Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. Its policy toward returning “Libyans” was to disarm them when they approached their homes in Niger, while offering programs to assimilate them into either the armed forces or civilian life. Thus far this seems to have paid off.

Implicitly, Issoufou deplored Touré’s laissez-faire approach of letting the “Libyan” Tuareg make their way back to Mali without interference, despite the almost perennial history of Tuareg armed militancy. No less implicit is Issoufou’s criticism of the Western powers that intervened in the Libyan affair apparently with no concern for its possible perverse consequences. This is all the more ironic as the United States has been building, painstakingly, something like a containment policy in the Sahel to try to avert the opening of a new jihadist front there.

A recent mission pursuant to this policy, planned and led by the 369th Sustainment Brigade with help from other U.S. Army and National Guard units and the Air Force’s 19th Airlift Wing, arrived in Mali shortly after the outbreak of the Tuareg offensive. While that was entirely coincidental from the American perspective—the exercise was planned long in advance and fits into a multiyear program—from the MNLA and AQIM angle it represented an opportunity to preempt an agenda based on compromise and democracy.

It certainly had the effect of spoiling the broad consensus in Mali to let Touré finish his presidency calmly, put through some constitutional changes strengthening the executive (and the judiciary), and watch a smooth transition after a free and fair election. Even Touré’s most loyal opposition, in the person of former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, quickly broke ranks, stating in early February that the security situation in the north was being neglected—along with everything else, he added. This took a certain chutzpah, coming from a pillar of Mali’s political establishment in the past 20 years. He is his party’s candidate for president, however, and politics brings out this sort of thing in politicians. But there have been criticisms all along that ATT is overly mindful of getting high marks from the EU, the State Department, and the IMF.

The prescriptions of Western globalists, inevitably, are viewed with less satisfaction in the Malian countryside than they are in Washington and Brussels. Mali’s cotton growers, for example—the country is Africa’s leading cotton producer—ask why they should play by free trade rules and put up with expensive credit to satisfy accountants in air-conditioned buildings on the other side of the globe when America and Europe continue to subsidize their agribusinesses. 

All this seems far away from massacres and bloody counterattacks (the Malian Army claimed 100 rebels killed in Tessalit), but it provides a hint of the patience that will be required of Americans in our African strategy. Africa’s calamities and contradictions provide innumerable opportunities for mischief because they cause so many distractions. As President Issoufou himself pointed out, a few weeks of fighting in Mali are threatening his country with a humanitarian crisis, as refugees for whom he has no resources flee the trouble next door. The fighting has produced 130,000 refugees by the last count, who find themselves in Mauritania and Niger, as well as internally displaced in Mali. This comes on top of the burden of Nigeriens returning home from a Libya that no longer wants them. There will be no more remittances from them, but there may well be demands. All this at a time when the Sahel faces a water crisis requiring huge expenditures it cannot afford. 

The most principled Malian opposition to the ATT administration, the leftist SADI (African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence), was quick to condemn the rebellion, while demanding greater social investment. SADI accused the government’s security police of using the emergency as an excuse to harass its leadership. But, desirable as social investments may be, it is not true that the “root causes” of political violence—that of the Tuareg or AQIM or any other group—lie in social or economic conditions. The root causes of violence are violent men, and when they receive the manna of vast arsenals of modern weaponry, at least in part as a result of the poorly conceived strategies of a smart-but-stupid French president feckless enough to launch a war on the basis of a phone call from a bored man-of-letters with T. E. Lawrence fantasies, they produce political violence. Malians welcome our help; after all they have put up with from the French, they certainly are happy to find Western friends who are neither condescending nor cruel. 

The blue men of the desert, as the Tuareg are sometimes called, may try another hit-and-run campaign, or they may retreat to their hiding places in the Ifoghas Adrar mountains above Tessalit, or wander away altogether—for a while. In the last days of February, both sides brought fresh troops to the village, whose control may be as much symbolic as strategic at this point. There is surely much the United States can do to help the Sahelians, but the first rule to be applied is caution. What strikes the Malians as most remarkable about their encounter with the 369th Brigade and the other American units they have met (and more will follow) is the mutual respect cultivated—indeed demanded—on the American side. We come and we see, but we have no intention of conquering. An American special operations team—or a Malian one—may sooner or later find itself with the feared Iyad Ag Ghaly, the man blamed for forging the tactical alliance between the MNLA and AQIM, in its crosshairs, and that will be what he himself asked for. But the long line in the sand will still need watching, and that can only be done by the Malians themselves and their neighbors.

Roger Kaplan, a longtime contributor, was embedded with the 369th Sustainment Brigade, New York National Guard.

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