(From dispatches and contacts in Mali)
Mali's foreign minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, traveled to Paris during what's been a particularly bitter month of March, in a bid to seek help from the former colonial power in this West African location strategically located astride the "Arab" Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. These geo-cultural concepts are out of date, as is the notion that France can solve the problems of the component parts of what used to be called l'Afrique Occidentale Française, but Mr. Boubèye's urgent visit is an indication that mentalities sometimes move along less quickly than facts on the ground.
Where these are concerned, the swiftness of the Tuareg advances as they aim for the conquest of the desert-and-savannah northern third of Mali (the country as a whole is about twice the size of Texas) has left regional observers as well as southern Malians in pre-catatonic political shock, facing the very real possibility of territorial division as the likely outcome of the emergency. Many in Mali consider that France had a hand in the latest round of on-and-off Tuareg wars -- either by facilitating the transit out of Libya of well-equipped Tuareg who had been serving in Moammar Gaddafi's army, or by encouraging a Tuareg national movement (a Tuareg state in what was then French Sudan was broached and shelved during the decolonization years).
Mr. Boubèye also reportedly is calling upon the presidents of Algeria and Mauritania, whose interests in the affair are explicit though by no means parallel to Mali's (or to each other's or to France's, for that matter.) The U.S., which has viewed Mali for years as a model of sub-Saharan political and economic liberal democratic development and which only last month conducted an important military training exercise in the context of its African counter-terrorism policy, thus far has maintained a low profile.
A brief lull in the fighting following the fall to Tuareg rebels of the strategic town of Tessalit, with its military base and airstrip, created the brief illusion that the adversaries might sit down and discuss their differences. Instead, the fighters of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA, from its French acronym) pushed their advantage, raiding towns south of Timbuktu and across the whole breadth of the northern territory they claim as their historical homeland. Malian military spokesmen assert they are reinforcing the defense of the northern regional capital of Kidal -- the logical objective after Tessalit -- as well as the important Niger river city of Gao. But with Mali, no less than France and the U.S., preoccupied with presidential elections (Mali's and France's in April), there is little incentive for the Tuareg to discuss anything so long as they are establishing facts on the ground strengthening their eventual bargaining position.
Such a calculation also takes account of presidential politics in the U.S. It is difficult to see an overt U.S. military commitment to help Mali re-assert control over its northern territory in the near term, according to our best military observers, notwithstanding the presence of special forces and training units in the region. The French, suspected in Bamako of having made a deal with the Tuareg MNLA with the double purpose of getting them to ditch Gaddafi last year and of establishing a friendly regime in a region some in France still view as their responsibility, have been drawing down troop strengths in Africa throughout the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, and there is little indication that any of his challengers in next month's election intend to reverse course. The French have an interest in stomping AQIM (the Maghreb Qaedists), who in fact are holding several French hostages, an interest they share with the Mauritanians. Under the no-nonsense policy of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, they have pursued Qaeda units on Malian territory as well as from Malian airspace, and have reported some successful hits. (Ould Abdel Aziz overthrew his predecessor, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, prior to standing in a democratic election, on the grounds that he was weak on the war against terrorists, as well as for alleged constitutional violations.)
Whether or not the Tuareg made common tactical cause with the Salafists in the southern Sahara, as the Malians claim, it is not unreasonable to think their political strategy could change once their territorial ambitions are attained.
Following their conquest of Tessalit and raids well into the Malian interior, the MNLA continues to insist, as it has from the beginning of its armed insurrection, that it is operating on its own and with the sole aim of freeing the Azawad (homeland) from Malian "colonialism." The government side and its supporters (in both the northern and southern populations, meaning north and south of the Niger river) qualify the rebels as small groups of "armed bandits," composed of ex-Gaddafi troops who left Libya last year with important arsenals which the MDF cannot match, and supplemented by Salafist serial killers and ordinary highwaymen.
Malian loyalists insist the MNLA is making common cause with Salafist organizations including the catch-all AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and rivals (or circumstantial allies) such as the Ansar Essuna ("sons of the Sunna") led by the veteran Tuareg secessionist Ayad Ag Aghali (Iyad Ag Ghaly in some transliterations). While certain observers see in this development evidence of a strategic Tuareg-Salafist alliance, others, including the MNLA itself through its spokesmen, insist the Tuareg have little tolerance for religious extremism and are not making common cause with al Qaeda.
IN ITS NIGHTMARE version, the Islamist-threat theory holds that the conquest of north Mali is only the first step toward the establishment of an Islamist caliphate in the entire Sahara-Sahel region, sword and Koran reigning over the desert, the dry air filled with the mingled smells of cordite and incense An attack from the air on an al Qaeda column in Mali a few days ago was launched from Mauritania, whose president, Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, has expressed the position, essentially, that regional forces must eradicate the Qaedists while making an effort to accommodate Tuareg demands.
Indeed, the casus belli invoked by the MNLA is that the peace accords of 2006 which ended the previous Tuareg war (a recurring conflict in the region) were abused by Mali President Amadou Toumani Touré, who favored repression over the development of civil and political institutions in the north, as called for in the accords.
MNLA spokesmen stress their commitment to secular democracy and their opposition to the "Arab dictatorships" and what they describe as African military dictatorships. In this they are in tune with Berber or Amazigh movements across North Africa, including Libya. However, during the long rule of Gaddafi, there was little evidence of Tuareg solidarity with Libyan Berbers, whom the Tripoli tyrant despised and repressed, nor have they had time, given their present preoccupations, to do anything about the anti-Berber policies of whoever is in power now in Libya. And the MNLA has not offered a satisfactory explanation of the mass atrocity in the northern garrison town of Aguelhoc, which bore the Qaeda signature throat-cuttings.
However, anti-Tuareg hard-liners in Mali accuse "President ATT" of having consistently neglected security in the north and the equipping and training of an army capable of maintaining order there. There are even rumors in the capital that he let the situation reach crisis levels in order to give himself a last-minute excuse to stay in power. This would go against his own precedents: he surrendered power immediately after the 1992 coup against the dictatorship and ran only in the third election following the instauration of Mali's third republican regime. Moreover, his "lax" attitude toward the Tuareg has not changed over the years.
A former general, Touré insists he will respect the constitutional limit of two terms and will oversee the transfer of power following the presidential election scheduled for late April. The northern crisis and the fall of Tessalit are causing the political and talking classes in Bamako, Mali's capital, to question ATT's surface serenity. The number of candidates for the country's highest office strongly suggests the eventuality of a runoff, but also the possibility of a splintering of the country into regional blocks the transcending of which since the establishment of multiparty democracy in the early 1990s is ATT's proudest achievement.
It is also the foundation on which the U.S. has based its confidence in Mali's developmental model. The low-key relationship may be tested if the government concedes Tessalit, with its army and air facilities, permanently (it insists the detachment's retreat is "tactical"), let alone if the MNLA rebels proceed toward an attack on Kidal or even Gao. Such military moves would definitely consolidate the MNLA's position in the north and would almost certainly force the hands, either diplomatic or military, of Mali's neighbors. Niger has a significant Tuareg population and fought its own Tuareg war in the early 1990s, while Algeria is deeply interested in anything that could affect its position as the main power in the Sahara. With the recent discovery of new sources of hydrocarbons and natural gas in the In Salah region of southern Algeria -- meaning not far from the claimed Azawad -- Algiers must take part in an eventual settlement of the conflict. Algeria too, as it happens, is in the midst of an important political year, while the physical condition of President Bouteflika has kept the political class (including the military hierarchy) in a state of uncertainty.
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.