In Mali’s north, Tuareg forces advance and a major Saharan junction is now in rebel hands.
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The situation in the Azawad (dixit Tuareg) or northern Mali (dixit Malians) is further complicated by the overlap of tribalism, gangsterism, and Islamist revolution. Most observers agree that AQIM, as well as the movement led by Ag Aghali, has partaken of the lucrative criminal activities that are rife in the region, such as kidnapping and drug-smuggling. But they also question whether some of the barbaric violence for which the Islamists are notorious is acceptable to Ag Aghali’s desert code of honor. On the other side, it is not difficult to find Malian patriots who assert Ag Aghali and code of honor are as sportsmanship and professional cycling.
Regional observers believe the Tuareg and AQIM must be viewed as discrete challenges to Mali, even if there have been tactical alliances between the two. But from the point of view of the tribes that live in proximity with the Tuareg in Mali’s north, the troubles are likely to spur the formation of tribal militias, as they did in the 1990s, adding to the violent and volatile mix in the southern Sahara.
The U.S. has not taken a position on the Tuareg question and reportedly has not participated in the recent fighting beyond a one-off humanitarian air-drop of supplies into Tessalit. It remains committed to helping the Sahelian countries develop their defenses against subversion and unrest. The State Department “deplores the use of violence against a democratically elected government,” and has called for a cessation of hostilities. It is assisting in succoring the estimated 170,000 refugees from the fighting (displaced internally as well as in neighboring countries).
With a small army (top-heavy with generals whom hard-liners dismiss as lacking the will to fight), the country could settle into a situation of de facto partition. With an economy that, while receiving accolades from the IMF and the State Department for recent liberal reforms, still shows the fragilities typical of the region, including under-capitalization, corruption, poor infrastructure and investment in human resources, the question then arises whether this will provoke the permanent breakup of Mali and with it a constitutional crisis and the subversion of the country’s democracy. However remote, such a pessimistic outcome cannot be excluded.
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