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War Comes to Mali

Al Qaeda advances under cover of tribal conflict.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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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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