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Mali at War, Again

Leading from the front, and with no legal hassles.

4:01 PM, Jan 16, 2013 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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However, the Tuareg are divided both in their attitudes toward AQIM and in the purposes of their own revolt.  Tuareg autonomist claims are as old as Mali – the French themselves entertained a project for an independent Tuareg state in the late 1950s but quickly shelved it – and rebellions in the north have punctuated the poor and landlocked and military-coup prone country’s history.  The Tuareg, a Berber group with a reputation as masters of the deep Sahara, are better known for their proclivities as highwaymen than for their religious fervor.  But the movement led by Iyad Ag Ghali attracted, with promises of bounty as well as appeals to faith, sufficient numbers of young men to its banner to give it the edge over the secularists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.  The MNLA leadership and many of its fighters found refuge in Mauritania, from where they have offered to join in the fray on the French side. 

There are, as well, Tuareg militia based in Niger who are opposed to their Islamist cousins and ambivalent about their separatist ones, preferring to talk about development aid for the north and reforms in its governance than independence. The Mali north is by no means an exclusive preserve of Tuareg tribes, and independence under their authority could trigger wars with Songhai groups. The Niger-based Tuareg are led by the redoubtable Alhaji Ag Gamou, who alongside Moor and Arab militias fought last year against the Ansar Dine-AQIM  forces while the Mali army dithered in Bamako.  They held Tessalit until they ran out of munitions and, following an attempted re-supply drop by the U.S. Air Force, made an orderly retreat into Niger. 

There is a third Islamist factor, the MUJAO (rough translation: United Jihad and Faith Movement), largely composed of black Malians.  While partaking of Islamist fervor, they resent the racist attitudes of the “whites” who lead the other formations.  Historically, the Tuareg and other Saharan tribes oppressed and enslaved blacks whom they captured during raids in the borderlands between savannah and forest, and old feelings and behaviors endure despite the outlawing of slavery during the colonial period and again by the post-colonial states.

The color line in the Sahel is only one of any number of social and economic factors complicating France’s stated long-term goal, which is to establish conditions for peace, stability, and development throughout the region.  These grand and abstract war aims represent our regional policy as well.  Even prior to 9/11 and the war on terror we have, at least formally, sought ways of encouraging multi-national cooperation to insure trans-Saharan security.  At the same time, we have promoted – evidently with little consequence -- good governance and economic and educational opportunities that would offer alternatives to the Islamist temptation in the Sahel.  Our support for France’s campaign in Mali and the degree to which the countries of the region perceive our long-term commitment – including our ability to learn from past mistakes – will be, whether or not we want it, an index of our foreign policy serieux (as our next secretary of state might say) in the years ahead.

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