The longer the small desert war lasts, the more America’s African strategy is undercut.
2:30 PM, Mar 8, 2012 • By ROGER KAPLAN
In embattled Mali, the battle for Tessalit continues. This has become a miniature African Stalingrad (neither condescension nor excessive alarm intended). It appears the rebellious Tuareg who declared independence in January for the northern tier of this West African country are determined to capture the village of Tessalit, which they reportedly held for a few days before being driven out by a heli-supported counterattack that was followed by the arrival of strong reinforcements led by a combative paratroop colonel, Elhadj Ag Gamou. The Tuareg national movement (MNLA), which most Malians outside the north are convinced is a self-defined band of scarcely a few hundred men, mostly veterans of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s army, claims that their homeland, which they refer to as the Azawad, is a colonized country.
An airdrop flown by USAF pilots last month to resupply the trapped population of Tessalit was confirmed by the U.S. Army, which notes that it was a one-time humanitarian gesture done at the request of the Mali government. However, Mali government spokesmen in the capital, Bamako, state the Gamou column withdrew after its initial thrust and is now trying to fight its way back in. Should the MDF position become desperate, it is difficult not to ask what the U.S. attitude will be. Officially, our only declared military policy in the region is to help local forces resist attacks by jihadist organizations that for years have used the Sahara, and particularly the southern Sahara, as a sanctuary.
The political and strategic importance of Tessalit is recognized by both sides. With scarcely two months before the first round of Mali’s presidential election, which Pres. Amadou Touré insists will take place and will consecrate his legacy as a constitutional reformer, the MNLA is announcing that Mali is welcome to have its election—in the south. What they are saying is that no one need fear a bomb in a polling place south of the Timbuctu-Gao line, but do not try to vote in the area claimed as the Azawad by those whom southerners refer to as “armed bandits” allied with “drug-runners, kidnappers, and jihadists.”
Tessalit has an airstrip, the one evidently used by the daring U.S. pilots who flew in supplies a few weeks ago, and its location a hundred kilometers south of the Algerian border makes it the gateway and the anchor of what would be the eastern part of the Azawad. It controls road access both northward into the sanctuaries of the deep Sahara (precisely what the criminal elements need, assert Mali hardliners), eastward toward Niger, where there are important Tuareg populations who thus far have stayed out of the conflict, having been, reportedly, treated correctly by the government of that country, and southward, toward important Malian towns such as Gao, Timbuctu, and Mopti.
According to reports, Col. Ag Gamou left Tessalit last week in order to bring still another relief column up from Gao. But it is not clear how close he is to Tessalit and whether he will assault the town’s outskirts, where important MNLA forces are concentrated.
A decisive defeat of the Tuareg insurgents will strengthen the hand of President Touré and, presumably, will give him breathing space in which to pursue his longstanding strategy of “talk and fight,” hoping to woo the Tuareg population away from the MNLA separatists with whatever development aid he can extract from a budget severely restricted by IMF austerity regulations and the ordinary waste and corruption of an African state (no worse in that regard than ours, however, with all due respect to our bipartisan budget committees) .
A defeat and withdrawal from the town by the Malian commandos and paratroops currently holding it would represent a disaster for President Touré, possibly even provoking a coup by hardliners in the army and their vociferous supporters. These have complained since the beginning of the crisis in January that its genesis is to be found in the laissez-faire attitude the government’s northern policy, allowing security to lapse while neglecting the region’s economic development.
It is not clear what sort of economic development is possible in the barren desert, but it is perhaps not immaterial to U.S. interests that huge new oil and natural gas deposits have been identified near In Salah, the major Algerian town closest to the area claimed by the MNLA.