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.
The southern Sahara represents strategic and economic assets that vary with the position of the appraiser. The Algerians desire tranquility above all, but their regional detractors claim they are not above sustaining troublemakers, both among the jihadists and among the Tuareg, for use against their competitors. Influential spokesmen among Algeria’s Berbers, notably among the Kabyles, express support for the Tuareg against what they call Mali’s “military dictatorship.” They chide Algeria’s diplomacy for being officially in favor of the inviolability of post-colonial borders even though it supported Eritrea’s breakaway from Ethiopia some years ago and South Sudan’s secession last year. They also note that Algeria officially supports the claims of the Sahrawi people to the Western Sahara against Moroccan “colonialism.” No one has explained yet why the Tuareg found themselves among Qaddafi’s elite troops—unless it really was all a matter of money, as anti-Tuareg Malians insist—even as the Tripoli tyrant waged an unrelenting campaign of persecution of Libyan Berbers. The latter played a decisive military role in overthrowing him in last year’s civil war, and as a reward are being persecuted by the triumphant al Qaedists whom we helped bring to power in Benghazi.
It may be true that the French, whom Malians suspect of fomenting the Tuareg insurrection, have not given up the idea, originally broached in the years of decolonization, of a Tuareg state as a kind of aircraft carrier to project Parisian influence in the great sand sea. Of course, it is foolish to speak of “the French,” when such schemes are the somewhat feverish fantasies of small lobbies among what used to be called the Colonial Party and are now concentrated in the more romantic—or cynical—bureaus of the Quai d’Orsay. Their main spokesman at present is the foreign minister, Alain Juppé, who as mayor of Bordeaux comes from a center of the colonial (and neocolonial) tradition in French politics. He has been pushing hard in the past several weeks for negotiations with the MNLA on the strength of its fighters’ early successes in January and February, successes that the Malians call ruthless AQIM-assisted terrorism.
In the face of these desert intrigues, the U.S. position remains a model of fairness—or naïveté. Apart from resupplying the Malians from the air, our gallant fliers and unrivaled special forces are quietly and tenaciously helping African rifles from Mauritania across the Sahel all the way to the Central African Republic and Kenya to resist and when possible destroy the marauding bands of gangster-terrorists such as the child-killing Lord’s Resistance Army in the east to the kidnap-and-drugs gangs in the west. This may well represent the application of the Bing West model of counterterrorism which the Marine strategist has for years recommended in the “small wars” that mark marginal regions. What remains to be seen is whether we can devise a diplomatic strategy that will induce the Northern and Sahelian Africans to, as we say in the neighborhood, get their act together. Whether even a Metternich could devise such a strategy is doubtful, but we are Americans and we can give it the old college try. Surely, it will include some measure of justice for the Tuareg and the other neglected desert peoples. It will not pay our debt to the Sioux, but it will demonstrate a new commitment to pluralism.
Roger Kaplan, a longtime contributor, was embedded with the 369th Sustainment Brigade, New York National Guard.