Feature

Losing Mali

The administration will not avoid further involvement in an African tribal war.

By From the December 2012 - January 2013 issue

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AMERICANS aren’t paying much attention to Africa right now. Eclipsed by the violent politics of the Middle East and the turbulent economies of Europe, the world’s second-largest continent often flies under our radar altogether. Which is why, when something very important happened in the western African nation of Mali last April, it made few headlines.

A rebel group, having seized control of Azawad, which comprises the northern half of the country, proclaimed its independence. That group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA from its French-language acronym), had led the latest of a long series of rebellions in the wilds of the Sahel, where the Sahara gradually turns into subtropical Africa. The Tuareg, a Berber people with long-standing grievances in Mali, appeared on the verge of having an independent homeland.

The MNLA’s declaration was meant to announce the victorious conclusion of a three-month campaign against the demoralized recruits of the U.S.-trained Mali Defense Force. But the announcement was almost immediately upstaged by the ensuing power struggle. The self-described democratic secularists of the MNLA were pushed aside by a radical jihadist movement called Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”) allied to the al Qaeda franchise in northwestern Africa. But even this—the hijacking of a Texas-sized territory by avowed jihadists—barely registered outside professionally concerned circles.

It scarcely made headlines, either, when, in the midst of the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting this past September, France vowed support for the Malian reconquest of Azawad. (The territory, with the rest of Mali, was known as the Soudan français prior to a wave of decolonization that between 1958 and 1962 put an end to France’s African empire.) But perhaps this lack of attention was understandable: It was difficult to sustain interest in a little-known African nation while catastrophes raged in Libya and Syria.

The U.S. State Department endorsed the French plan, with some misgivings. After the Malian army crumbled before the Tuareg assault, junior officers in Bamako, Mali’s capital, overthrew the government, citing the poor leadership of President Amadou Toumani Touré (“President ATT,” as he is known in Mali) in fighting the rebellion.

This complicated matters, as coups often do. The State Department’s view before the coup was that Mali was a paragon of political and economic progress, having rejected both the “khaki power” and the “African socialism” of its first post-independence regimes. State’s position after the coup was that regime legitimacy must be settled first, before the Tuareg question. Under pressure from international groups, the junta handed formal power to an interim government (now headed by a U.S.-educated astrophysicist) whose principal task would be to organize new elections. (The junta, however, maintained a de facto veto over its decisions.)

The long-term strategy of our Africa Command (AFRICOM) is to render African militaries more effective and professional—meaning concerned with security and humanitarian missions, not with political power. It would be an understatement to say the events in Mali came as a disappointment, but AFRICOM stayed focused on the long term, conducting a scheduled exercise in next-door Senegal in July. Dismay at the jihadist breakthrough out of the Sahara onto the borderlands of black Africa was muted.

Drawing up a counter-insurgency plan within six months of a state’s collapse is not, if you think about it, a poor performance—and on the American side, you have to hand it to AFRICOM for keeping its nerve. Concern for Mali is real, but so is a steady hand elsewhere, notably in East Africa, where our programs with Ethiopian and Ugandan militaries have stopped—and may have reversed—the spreading subversion out of Somalia.

But for American diplomats, Mali is a national tragedy, not to mention a flagrant foreign policy failure on many levels. It shows the inability to recognize a threat and be honest about it. It represents another domino fallen to the Islamists. And yet despite a quarter-million Malian refugees, the dynamiting and bulldozing of priceless treasures of African culture in Timbuktu and environs, young women machine-gunned for making eyes at their boyfriends, Mali at best makes the world news briefs, deep inside the paper.

Will something be done about Mali? In the African theater, the preparations are bound to take time. Africa is vast, diverse, and complex. Not a single country bordering Azawad wants a state next door run by jihadists who moonlight as drug smugglers. But bringing them together in a multinational force capable not only of defeating the rebels but also of ensuring the southwestern Sahara remains tranquil will be a remarkable diplomatic and military feat. If the French pull it off, presumably with our logistical and diplomatic support, the political and economic dynamic throughout North and West Africa will be decisively affected. Whether this dynamic will pull in the direction of democracy remains to be seen. But whatever happens, the Malian crisis will be, unavoidably, at the top of the administration’s foreign policy agenda.

The Operation

FOR NOW, the U.S. military is doing only the same thing it has done for years: train and advise our friends and allies. As an observer of one of these missions, I found myself on a C-130 bound for Mali on January 30, 2012—just days after the Tuareg went on the war path.

We were carried to Mopti, a town on the Niger River in central Mali, by the 53rd Airlift out of Little Rock AFB, a unit that traces its lineage back to the North African campaign of more than half a century ago. The Blackjacks can do anything from the air that you ask it to do. Its aircraft of choice is the C-130 Hercules, a venerable plane that was introduced in the late 1950s. The Hercules assigned to the Mali mission was a model built in 1974, which the commander, Col. Kelvin Anderson, pointed to as evidence of both the quality of American engineering and the meticulousness of Air Force maintenance crews.

The flight was long, but with no troops on board (they were coming on other flights), the craft soon became downright luxurious compared to commercial sardine cans. You plugged your ears against engine noise, the loadmaster and the riggers made sure everything was tight and secure, and time flew. Enjoy the wide Atlantic from 20,000 feet and a steady 300 mph. You can listen to music or read a book or discuss various matters with your mates—does God exist, should you marry your girlfriend, the reports on the outbreak of African tribal war.

The mission was routine, but that only means pilots and airmen trained for this until they knew every move by heart. Something unexpected can still happen. You cannot work too hard, you cannot be too careful, you cannot be too alert, you cannot be too good. Blackjacks—primus cum pluribus—first with the most!

Kelvin Anderson was experienced enough to know that with the present political climate, a war-weary nation, and an election year, a decision to intervene in the interminable on-off Tuareg wars was likely to be examined with great prudence. The colonel, a laconic Texan with a wry sense of humor and an easygoing manner who commands without raising his voice, understood that if intervention was not already on the options list, well, sorry about that.

Instead, the mission, dubbed Atlas Accord 2012, was to teach the Malian forces how to deliver men and supplies through drops or landings on improvised fields.

If you are going to fight Tuareg and al Qaeda terrorists in the Sahara, which is the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi, air drops are crucial. And not just to supply guns and ammo to kill the armed bandits (as everyone calls them in Bamako—when they’re being polite), but also to deliver food and water to the populations those bandits are turning into desperate refugees.

That last part is not unimportant. The Americans hoped to show that these same skills and equipment can be used to undertake the kinds of humanitarian missions in which our services, particularly the National Guard, have long experience. In a region like the Sahel, where disaster is hardly uncommon, you can’t rely only on the United Nations or the Red Cross. This is a component of what we call soft power.

The 369th Sustainment Brigade, New York National Guard, ran the show on the ground, and Col. Reginald (Reggie) Sanders was delighted to have been placed in command. After serving in the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York, he had a second career, while staying in the Reserves, as an executive with the Chrysler Corporation. Now he was on his third career as the C.O. of the legendary 369th, famous for never giving an inch, for always getting the task done.

As a sustainment brigade, the 3-6-9 is the backbone we often hear about but rarely see in action, the force that makes everything else possible. They deliver transportation, supplies, food, medicine, and every conceivable item to the front line, with the same promptness and care as UPS brings your wife the present for your anniversary.

The 3-6-9 helped destroy the color line in the American military. During World War I, the 369th Infantry, unpopular with commanders still committed to the idea that white men fight America’s wars, was loaned to the French. They proved their worth, and earned the nickname Harlem Hellfighters.

A century and several wars later, the 3-6-9 is as integrated—diverse, in current jargon—as the city and state that continue to furnish its ranks. Here in Mali, they were ready to do the job—and to help the Malians see that they were on the right path, and that there was always a way to get from A to B, even if your political leaders are a gang of thieves and your superior officers bought their commissions.

As Justin Lenz, the regimental command sergeant major (the highest non-commissioned rank in the Army), pointed out, “There’s no such thing as can’t. If you say you can’t, I say it means you won’t.”

Complex Mali

MALI IS POPULAR with soft power advocates because it’s democratic. The State Department, and the other free-and-fair types who get their money from State, seldom mention the vote stealing, the massive abstention, and the vanishing polling boxes that have come to characterize Mali’s elections. Cynicism? Maybe not—consider how New York worked in Boss Tweed’s democracy. The real problem was that our policy bigs believed their own wishful thinking, and—as in some other places where we have been rather heavily engaged of late—pretended not to see the signs of disaffection and misery.

Malians chose the path of liberal democratic development following the overthrow of the military dictator Moussa Traoré in 1990. Mali quickly became Americans’ favorite West African country, a model. (We didn’t do everything we could have, like letting Malian cotton into the U.S., but in a contest between free trade and the farm lobby, the outcome was predictable.) At the same time, it was curious that given our official aim of protecting black Africa from the jihadists we gave so little thought to the Tuareg Question.

It would have helped if we’d learned a little history.

During the first months of World War I, Italy tried to impose order on Libya. It had taken over this backwater of the Ottoman Empire in 1912, but the local Arab and Berber tribes resisted their new masters. As Douglas Porch relates in The Conquest of the Sahara, “[The Italians] abandoned 5,000 rifles and ammunition by the cratefuls. For the first time in their history, the desert tribes were extremely well armed.”

Porch, who wrote his fine history in 1984, could not know how important this abandonment would become 90 years later in the global war on terror. But he would have known that given the chance, something like it would happen again.

One of the themes of Saharan history is that no one can expect to completely dominate the Saharans. They are too contrary. Like our Plains Indians, the Saharans are related tribes sharing a number of habits, borne of the harsh environment in which they evolved and the cruel history they never made, leaving them with a stubborn pre-modern sense of themselves, a refusal to be economic men as we know them.

The Tuareg took part in the French colonial drive in North Africa, sometimes serving as auxiliaries to military conquerors, sometimes resisting their advance, and sometimes playing both roles in turn. More recently, their raiding parties welcomed support from Moammar Gaddafi, who viewed them as instruments to destabilize the fragile regimes of the newly independent Sahel countries on the Sahara’s southern shores. He played both sides, investing in Mali, Niger, and other places. Evidence of this can be seen in Mali’s capital, Bamako: a school named for Gaddafi, luxury hotels he built used by American military missions and U.N. development teams.

The hell of it was, the recent events in Mali likely would not have happened without Libya, and for that matter, it is quite possible the outcome in Libya would have been better had we given some forethought to the connections between that country and the Sahel.

When the Libyan civil war began in 2011, Tuareg who had been serving in Gaddafi’s military and security agencies for many years were among the most reliable troops against the NATO-supported rebellion. At the same time, countries like Mali and Niger were among those cautioning the Western powers that their democracy crusade might be admirable in intention, but unwise strategically.

They feared that the likely winners in another Western regime-change scheme would be not liberal democrats but Arab Islamic radicals, the kinds of people whom they, the black Africans, had no reason to trust. They knew that Gaddafi feared and hated the Islamists, and so long as he competed with them for influence in the Arab world, he was more likely to make friends in (and give money to) sub-Saharan Africa than to foment subversion there.

Also, they worried about what would happen to Africans in a post-Gaddafi Libya, which, with its oil money, had attracted tens of thousands of black construction workers, domestics, kitchen helpers, and then, little by little, more skilled workers. All of them contributed to Libya and gave back to their countries by sending money home. Unlike the nomads and highwaymen of the desert, these were modern economic migrants.

They were despised and even hated by the democrats we helped bring to power. Even before the regime fell, Africans were being lynched in rebel-controlled areas. The Tuareg (who do not consider themselves black) saw the writing on the wall and left, taking their weapons with them. These were modern arsenals—Gaddafi did not skimp.

What would they do next? The Tuareg are poor, primitive people. Their traditional way of life was disrupted by the great droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, with the decimation of camel herds, the desertification of date orchards, and the drying up of wells. They began to feel hemmed in by the post-colonial borders representing the power of incursive, often black-dominated states.

The French promoted the idea of a Tuareg state in the late 1950s so they could keep a base in the southern Sahara. Nothing came of it, and the former French Sudan became Senegal and Mali. Tuareg tribes launched their first rebellion even before Mali declared its independence.

The leader of Mali’s national movement and the new nation’s first president, Modibo Keita, was a black power, Africa-for-Africans man, which in the Sahel means he distrusted and disliked the whites, the Saharans. (Though the Saharans were not all white; Moors and Arabs and Tuareg mixed and competed with the black Fulani and Songhai.)

There are deep historical and cultural differences among the tribes on either side of the great Niger River, not to mention geographic facts that encourage different modes of existence.

The river peoples are more sedentary and settled than the desert peoples. The desert peoples also practice slavery, one of the factors of distrust between blacks and whites in Mali. They want their own state, the southerners ask, for smuggling and criminality? And to maintain slavery? You can denounce the post-colonial borders all you want, say they are the phony lines drawn by imperialists meeting in Berlin a long time ago. But then what? It was to liberate Africans from their ancient, often cruel practices that Modibo and the other black power men preferred not to redraw the map. They reasoned that changes could be made within the boundaries they controlled. If they abandoned chunks of territory here and there to tribal majorities, who knew where it would stop and who would be in charge?

We went for a visit deep inside Bamako’s neighborhoods, the ones away from the great river, where the streets are not paved, and away from the fine hotels where the lobbies are made of marble and the men wear suits and carry briefcases. We asked the doctor for his opinion on democracy and free markets. “Our children do not see doctors, and our daughters, no matter what I tell their parents, are still cut, you understand? And why does your government certify our elections when less than a third of the people even know they can vote?” The doctor said Modibo was for democracy. Thomas Sankara was for democracy. Patrice Lumumba was for democracy. All were murdered, the doctor said, by the ones we now call democrats. “Why are your soldiers here? Are they here to protect us from the Arab slavers? Are they here to save the north of the country from the Taliban? Are they here to let us sell our cotton on the American market?” Outside the doctor’s office, women were waiting patiently, breastfeeding babies and cooking rice over a pit.

 Ag Gamou’s War

FOR MALIAN army Colonel Alhaji Ag Gamou, desert warrior, it was not a matter of options. Tuareg tribesmen, many of whom he knew, were routing the ill-trained recruits the army sent to the desert regions of the country. He had to defend the north, which as a practical matter meant defending the north-south axis of Mali on the eastern frontier, from Algeria to Niger. The “Libyans,” as the Tuareg who served under Gaddafi were known, had returned home, hardened and well armed.

The MNLA said it was fighting for the independence of Azawad. But Ag Gamou was a Tuareg and did not believe in fairy tales. The leader of the national movement, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, was killed in a so-called road accident. The boys in the liberation movement would face a similar fate: eaten for breakfast by the Libyans and al Qaeda who were behind them.

The real danger was Iyad Ag Ghali, who was one of the leaders of the last great Tuareg war in the 1990s before he made a peace deal with Amadou Toumani Touré, who went on to become Mali’s democratically elected president.

Ag Ghali made a fortune as a highwayman, kidnapper, and smuggler. He went to Saudi Arabia—with the blessing of Touré, who thought he was getting rid of him—and cut a deal with al Qaeda. And now he was back, proclaiming that all of Mali, not just the north, should be ruled by strict sharia.

The smart thing would be to make a deal with those secular MNLAs, then fight together against Ag Ghali. But Touré was too weak to do that. All the politicians in Bamako waiting around like carrion to take his place would never let him. Those lying dogs, Ag Gamou knew, those Songhai and Malinke, those Bambara-speaking blacks, were interested only in what they could get for themselves. They have starved and ruined the army; that was why there was no resistance as garrison after garrison was overrun and wiped out. But if Ag Gamou could hold the Tessalit-Kidal-Gao axis until the Americans arrived, surely then the bandits would be routed.

He still believed the front could be held, but it depended on playing off the Tuareg tribal divisions and getting reinforcements. He needed something—money, credible political concessions—to offer those in the MNLA who proclaimed their commitment to secular anti-jihad democracy.

Iyad Ag Ghali, as a leader and a shrewd military tactician of the 1990s revolt, enjoyed broad prestige. And just as important, he was feared. He had money thanks to his criminal involvement in some kind of gangland division of turf with the al Qaeda bands. According to conspiracy buffs in Bamako, he also had the support of Algerian security services, who, apart from the cut they were taking from his activities, were not keen on a secular, pro-West Tuareg state beyond their control. The French seemed to grasp this; they had, since the beginning of the crisis, urged Bamako to seek a deal with the “democratic” Tuareg. This hadn’t endeared them to the Malians, who saw it as proof that the French planned and organized the whole thing after dusting off the old dossiers from the 1950s for a Tuareg state.

However, Ag Gamou cared less about where this all came from than about what choices he had. If Ag Ghali and his allies could be stopped, the French and the Mauritanians might come in—but where were the Americans?—and help him push al Qaeda back into Algeria. Time was running out. Ag Ghali, the shrewd fox, was getting stronger by the day.

Ag Gamou had no resources with which to fight the political war. He could not explain the strategic situation to policymakers in Paris and Washington; even if they were inclined to listen to him, he didn’t know where they were. The official line from the West was simple: Mali’s territorial integrity was inviolable, armed rebellion must cease, and democratic elections must proceed as planned.

By the third week of February, Col. Ag Gamou could not get back to Gao. He could not even get back to Kidal. Tessalit would be his Stalingrad. He held part of it; the combined Tuareg forces held the rest. He had the airfield, lost it. One last chance for resupply: some of his men were on the outskirts of town and might be able to secure a drop.

The Drop

AT MOPTI, the American mission proceeded while the rebels raided the outskirts of Gao, the big river town at the eastern edge of Mali near Niger, and Timbuktu, the legendary desert city 300 kilometers directly to the north. Their main thrusts were directed at the northern towns of Kidal and Tessalit, which they claimed as historic centers of Azawad. Menaka, near Algeria, fell. Ag Gamou and his men lost ground, regained it, and held on to the airfield, the only one up there and a key strategic point. They requested a drop of supplies, ammo, water, and food.

The Guardsmen were doing exactly as instructed by AFRICOM, which, from its headquarters in Italy and in coordination with the U.S. State Department, was in charge. The American troops were as can-do as you could want. Everybody had something to teach someone on the Malian side, and it was impossible not to think, as the noose tightened around Ag Gamou, that if this had happened a year earlier and their army had been properly supplied and, and, and—but the world is not made that way, and Ag Gamou warned that the situation was rotten. He was outnumbered and outgunned, and he worried about the civilians. The more refugees that thronged the road to Niger, the better. The colonel was not going to get a relief column from Gao. President Touré neglected the army, and in Bamako there were grumblings that he and his entourage diverted funds meant for its resupply and recruitment. The army was hollow, which was why we were relying on a tribal militia, and a Tuareg one at that.

The 369th and the other Guard units did their jobs. The Air Force riggers showed how to secure the cargo, prepare it for a drop, or get it out in a hurry if there is a landing. The soldiers showed how to secure the drop zone. Secure it, hold it. Col. Sanders repeated: “Hellfighters never give an inch of ground.” If you learn this, you learn how to use the air to gain the ground.

Our New Yorkers and Texans and Utahans and West Virginians did everything that was asked of them, and they did everything cheerfully. Teaching a signals class to Malian soldiers, the sergeant was at great pains to explain what makes the difference between dropping the boxes where your people want them and dropping them on their heads. The medical corpsmen, a detachment from Utah, could not help having a whiff of the mother hen about them, concerned about everything from the heat (the weather was mild) to the food (it is probably an exaggeration, but there appeared to be enough rations to feed Mopti for a week, though as many men took the meals cooked locally at the excellent hotel where the 369th chose to bivouac). Command Sgt. Maj. Lenz and Maj. William Croft checked and rechecked the locations of the vehicles that were moving men back and forth to their assignments, made sure that the escorts were in place, security was assured, everything was punctual. It all worked. It was like a well-fueled machine. There was nothing they could not do.

And it all ended very well, with a big show in the second week of February. Malian and American dignitaries were there to witness a demonstration drop and mutually agreed that everyone was happy with the Malian Defense Force. Looks good, everyone. Good luck. Take care.

Who Lost Mali?

WHY DO THE WOMEN of the Sahel have seven, eight children before they are out of their 20s? Because several of them are expected to die before they can help the family in any way. When this is the overwhelming fact of your life, you can’t get terribly upset about who has the power over your government.

But of course, there is a difference between the MNLA and jihadist Ansar Dine. And by the early days of March, the difference was becoming all too clear. The war was lost, for now. Alhaji Ag Gamou knew that and bluffed his way through enemy lines to escape with his men and rifles into Niger. Tessalit fell, and it seemed there might be a Tuareg nation.

Instead, there came into being a radical Islamist zone, quite possibly doubling as a narcostate, a lair of “armed bandits.” The drop was done (not by the Blackjacks, who stayed on task; humanitarian supplies only, according to the Air Force), but it fell into the enemies’ hands. That was it for us. Headed home. The decision isn’t ours, you know, not our pay grade.

Policymakers at both State and Defense, and their big-thinking hierarchical superiors in Washington, said they could not: Could not do anything until the situation was clear, could not do anything with the forces at hand, could not do anything given the state of the Malian army (now they noticed), could not do anything prior to in-depth consultations with the West African leaders and the French. As Justin Lenz says, “If you say you can’t, it means you won’t.”

Later, however, it seemed that the State Department and those at the higher pay grades had seen things clearly. Just what exactly could we do in Mali, for Mali? We had misunderstood and misjudged Mali from the moment we assured ourselves President Touré was some kind of Jeffersonian liberal setting forth on the path to democracy and prosperity. We pretended the venality and corruption in his entourage and army was of little consequence. We assured ourselves Touré was uniting all Malians, even though his northern development program was viewed as patronizing peanuts by the northerners and handouts if not blackmail by the southerners.

By the time the Tuareg war began, our idea of liberal, harmonious Mali was set in stone. Regardless of the degree to which it was incorrect, its consequence was that the whole weight of our government was against the idea of a military intervention to save our model West African nation. In an election year especially, there was no likelihood of deploying a reaction force into northern Mali.

Well, there was a way. There always is. But there was no will. The French, three or even two decades earlier, probably could have airlifted a battalion of Foreign Legionnaires into Tessalit or dropped them over Kidal and turned the tide of battle. They had bases from which to do this in Abidjan and Libreville. But they were in an election year too, and, moreover, they have been abandoning the chasse gardée, the private reserve. Our own gradual development of African bases, from which to launch humanitarian and military rescue missions, is taking its time. AFRICOM has a plan, but one step at a time.

Since this was the reality, they let it go, choosing to bide their time and see what happened. After the fall of Tessalit, the spiral accelerated. The Tuareg forces soon invaded Kidal. Then there was the army coup against President ATT in Bamako, led by a young captain, Amadou Sanogo. He promised to enforce the inviolability of Malian territorial integrity, but the immediate issue was power and how to keep it. By then the U.S. had cut off aid, including military aid, definitively putting an end to any notion of short-term rescue. And neighboring West African nations were blockading Mali and demanding that civilian rule be restored. Sanago insisted that he wanted nothing better than to return power to civilians. Meanwhile, Gao fell without a fight, as did Timbuktu.

On April 6, the MNLA declared Azawad an independent state and appealed to the community of democracies to recognize it.

Nothing happened, because by that time the MNLA was rapidly losing ground to the combined forces of Ag Ghali and his allies. In Gao and Timbuktu, perforce the smaller localities, the Islamists did what they always had promised to do: impose and enforce Islamic law. Women and girls who escaped with just a whipping for acts of indecency learned to consider themselves lucky they were not machine-gunned. The same went for musicians who might be caught performing at a wedding. Or restaurateurs (there are some even in these remote lands), who could at least reflect that seeing their stock of alcoholic beverages destroyed was preferable to seeing their own blood soak the desert sand. Talk of an independent Azawad was forgotten: Ag Ghali was not interested. He continued to say his aim was to impose Islam, as he understood it, throughout all of Mali.

In September, in the corridors of the United Nations headquarters at Turtle Bay, the Malian delegation lobbied for an armed intervention by the West African community, backstopped by the U.S. and France. The French supported this plan: They wanted to clear the southwestern Sahara of the bandits who kidnapped their nationals. And with their newly restored influence in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, it was not unreasonable for the French to want clout in Bamako. The Americans were not against the idea. But first things first, including presidential elections—ours and theirs—because we would not think of intervening until they restored constitutional order. Might happen, might not. The Hellfighters are ready. But do not say you can, unless you will.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.