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Mali: Regional Support for Transition, Uncertainties on War

7:10 AM, Apr 16, 2012 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Making an orderly retreat from Tessalit, Ag Gamou saved his forces and many civilians from a massacre that might have replicated a terrible outrage in the town of Aguelhoc in January, where disarmed MDF troops were slaughtered by rebels whose identity and affiliation remain uncertain.  Ag Gamou was then reported to have defected to the MNLA, even as this organization was declaring its unequivocal opposition to the jihadists. These are composed, reportedly, on one side by the largely Algerian and non-Maghrebian fighters of AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and by the forces of Ansar Edine (or Dine, according to the transliteration, meaning roughly sons or defenders of Islam), led by the legendary – or notorious – Iyad Ag Ghaly, who led Tuareg revolts in the early 1990s and reportedly converted to extreme Islamism in recent years. 

Ansar Edine is more interested in a sharia state in Mali than in Tuareg independence. Both movements – and offshoots that already have appeared – are reported by American and Malian sources as being deeply seeped in the criminal activities that have characterized the southern Sahara for many years. Ag Ghaly himself is believed to have made a fortune as a “kidnap broker.” 

On the other side, sources close to the MNLA leadership insist on its secular nature and its value as a Western asset in combating the advance of jihadism in the region.  At present, the de facto tactical alliance between MNLA and Ansar Edine against MDF forces reportedly has broken down and, as one source in Bamako put it, “les bandits armes et les terros s’entretuent,” which translates roughly as, “the thieves are falling out among themselves.”

However, these are rumors and no one knows what the “relation of forces” will be in the coming days and weeks.  The West African Union’s defense and foreign ministers have been in discussions in recent days regarding the composition and strategy of a regional military force assigned the task of restoring order in the north of Mali, reportedly with promises of logistical support from Paris and diplomatic support, but no specific promises, from Washington.

Meanwhile, the allegedly defecting Col. Alhaji Ag Gamou reportedly resurfaced in Niamey, the capital of Niger – whose government has taken a hard line against both the MNLA and the Ansar Edine throughout the crisis, in contrast to the somewhat more nuanced positions of Algiers and Nouakchott, inclined toward deal-cutting negotiations – and explained that he was ready to return to the front at the head of his loyal troops. For a dose of Wild West and Great Game combined, get your ticket to Bamako when the airports (and the visa sections in the embassies) reopen, but bring some help to the people there, who certainly do not deserve all this trouble.

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