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Tuareg Nation Upsets U.S. Policy in Africa

Azawad proclaims independence in North Mali.

9:25 AM, Apr 7, 2012 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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As fighting ebbed in recent days with the retreat south of the Niger of the MDF, there have been reports of jihadists occupying certain neighborhoods in Gao, Timbuctu, and other localities. Their proclaimed goal is the creation of an Islamic state in the north, eventually in all of Mali and throughout the Sahel.

Both the legitimate authorities in Bamako and the putschists – who at least in the past two weeks seem to have enjoyed considerable popular support, largely on the strength of their proclaimed goal of taking back the north – continue to refer to the Tuareg forces of the MNLA as little better than “armed bandits” closely associated with the highwaymen, drug smugglers, and gun runners who long have used the southern Sahara as a sanctuary and hideout. Indeed, the jihadist forces, too, are regularly accused by regional authorities of being drenched in criminality, specializing in kidnapping and other heinous but lucrative acts. 

The U.S., while recognizing the sharp differences among the regional powers, has for at least 10 years sought to encourage military and political cooperation across the region on the basis of a common interest in eradicating terrorism from the Sahara and preventing the contagion of jihadism to spread into sub-Saharan Africa, beginning with the Sahel. 

This extremely poor region of desert and savannah is presently very much in play, with U.S. (as well as French) special forces fighting against terrorists in cooperation with regional militaries from Uganda, Kenya, and South Sudan in the east to Niger, Mali, and Mauritania in the west, passing by Nigeria’s north.  The major regional power, Algeria, has received strong marks from the U.S. government for its assistance and cooperation in this policy. Several Algerian consular officials in Gao were taken prisoner, reportedly, by Ansar Edine elements, following the fall of the city. The assault appears to have been designed to impress U.S. assistant secretary of state Johnnie Carson, conferring even as it happened with the president and foreign minister of Algeria in Algiers.

The MNLA denies any responsibility in this affair and indeed regional observers are attentive to whether the anti-colonial and jihadist “tactical allies,” if such they were, are about to fall out among themselves now that the MDF has been defeated in the north – or if, on the contrary, their alliance turns out to be durable. 

U.S. policy is at the very least likely to suffer a serious setback if instability persists in Mali and, per chance, spreads to its neighbors. Sources close to the Azawad leadership, however, hope that the U.S. will take seriously the national movement’s declarations of commitment to democratic and secular government, with all the strategic consequences that follow.    

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