During the first months of World War I, Italy tried to impose some order on Libya. It had taken over the Ottoman province in 1912, but as usual it took a while to get things organized; the war provided the impetus to show who was boss. The result, as Douglas Porch relates in The Conquest of the Sahara, was a debacle, and one of the first victories of Muslims over Europeans in the 20th century.
What is strikingly germane to the situation in north Africa today, however, is this: “In the process, they [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, which is mainly concerned with France’s by turns appalling, fantastic, heroic, and revolting colonial adventures in the desert, in 1984, could not know how prescient this distant and relatively minor front of the Great War would be, in relation to the so-called Global War on Terror, or the Long War.
But he certainly would have known then that given the chance, some version of this particular story was likely to be heard again. For one of the themes of Saharan history is that no one can expect to completely dominate the people of the Sahara. They are too tough, too independent, too contrary. They are in some ways like our Plains Indians, Sioux and Cheyenne, Arapaho, Blackfoot — Mr. Croke will correct me if I am mixing things up a bit — a people, or rather a number of related peoples, sharing a number of habits, borne from the harsh environment in which they evolved and a cruel (modern) history they never made but which certainly was not kind to them.
And yet, that is not quite true. The Tuareg, a Berber group that is concentrated mainly in the southern Sahara, 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, they welcomed Moammar Gaddafi’s support (money, weapons, pickup trucks on which to mount the weapons) for their raiding parties, which he viewed as instruments to destabilize the fragile regimes of the newly independent Sahel countries (the countries on the Sahara’s southern shores). Not unlike them but on a different scale, he too played both sides, investing in Mali, Niger, and other places and getting quite a bit of support in return.
He got support from those whom he helped. Which is why when the Libyan civil war began last year, Tuareg who had been serving in his military and security agencies for many years were among the most reliable troops in his attempted repression of the rebellion. At the same time, countries like Mali and Niger, which had benefited from Gaddafi economic aid (not only investments for profit but schools, infrastructure), were among those — Uganda was another — to caution the Western powers that their democracy crusade might be admirable in its intention but not necessarily wise strategically.
They were thinking not only of their own interests, but also of what they viewed as the likely consequences of regime change in Libya. They knew very well, in the first place, that the likely winners in such a game would be not liberal democrats but Arab Islamic radicals — the kinds of people whom they, the black Africans, had no historical reason to trust. Indeed, they had been through the whole range of enmity-to-friendship with Gaddafi during his Arab years, and were now prudently pleased that, having made practically every other Arab despot hate him, he was in an African phase. They knew, pertinently, that he feared and hated the Islamists, and they felt that so long as he was preoccupied with competing with them for influence in the Arab world, he was more likely to seek allies in sub-Saharan Africa than to foment subversion there.
In the second place, they worried about what would happen to the Africans in a post-Gaddafi Libya. The Libyan economic boom, such as it was (it was not very much, but there was plenty of money around), attracted thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of black Africans — not only the Tuareg serving in Gaddafi’s army (they do not consider themselves black, but let us say non-Arab African), but construction workers, domestics, kitchen help in restaurants, and, little by little, professionals, skilled workers. All these people gave much to Libya and were, too, able to give back to their own countries by sending their money home. They were, in other words, immigrants.
And as such, they were despised and even hated by the democrats we helped bring to power. Even before the final fall of Gaddafi, Africans were being lynched in rebel-controlled areas. The Tuareg saw the writing on the wall and left, taking their weapons with them. These were modern arsenals — Gaddafi did not stint on this.
WHAT WOULD THEY do next? For years — since even before the independence wave in the 1950s and ’60s — the Tuareg had been complaining that the new states (or soon-to-be new states) being carved out of the mainly French possessions in north and west Africa were not “theirs.” This was true — Tuareg were not among the tribes (or races, which personally I think is far more accurate that the totalitarian term “ethnic group”) favored by the French to take over (with French advisors standing in the background) and create a happy commonwealth. It is difficult to say if this issue concerned many individuals. These were primitive people, often still living a nomadic existence. But you do not have to be rich or educated to understand the consequences of having and not having power.
The French promoted the idea of a Tuareg state in the late 1950s. They were toying with the idea of keeping a base in the southern Sahara. (There was no reason why Algeria should include the Sahara, but the Algerian national movement insisted on keeping it as part of the deal to end the independence war.) Nothing came of it — the former French Soudan became Senegal and Mali, which tried for a few months to federate and then went their separate ways. Tuareg tribes — some Tuareg tribes, it is important to state, for they are as often quarreling among themselves as with non-Tuareg groups — launched their first rebellion even as Mali was declaring its independence.
Since then, there have been many rebellions. Gaddafi supported them at times, defused them at others, as when he invited some of the more warlike tribals to work for him. Under the regime established in the early 1990s under the leadership of a former general, Amadou Toumani Touré, there have been efforts at reconciliation.
Touré — “President ATT” as he is known — is popular in Mali, but he is accused on one side of being too nice to the Tuareg and on the other (by the Tuareg themselves, or those claiming to speak for them) of not doing enough for the Saharan north which they view as their historic homeland, or Azawad. This conjunction of two extremes against the middle seems to be the tinder from which the latest Tuareg war exploded.
Well-armed ex-“Libyans” came home and, taking the leadership of dissatisfied cousins, proposed nothing less than an armed movement, without further ado, to carve out a territory they would call their own. Touré sent his foreign minister to Algiers to seek a mediation, but meanwhile company and battalion-sized battles were raging in the north of Mali. Positions quickly hardened as hardliners in the army insisted on crushing the rebellion while anti-Tuareg sentiment spread among tribes, such as the Songhai, who traditionally lived in proximity to the Tuareg and felt they could speak from experience when they called them pitiless throat-cutting gangsters who preferred criminality to hard work.
This is, of course, unfair, cruel. Yet it is the case that in the wilds of the southern Sahara, which includes much of northern Mali, the occupation of highwayman is passed from father to son, and the Tuareg practice it the way others farm or follow the weaver’s trade. This is not a racist stereotype but a simple observation, which of course weighs on the vast majority of Tuareg, many of whom are well integrated in Mali society, including its armed forces.
In recent years, Saharan criminality has been rendered more politically significant than in the recent past due to the presence of Salafist bands in the region, notably (though not only) the so-called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM. Strategically, their aim is to export anti-West jihad into sub-Saharan Africa. The peoples of the Sahel are predominantly Muslim, though, as it happens, the Tuareg have a reputation as being particularly averse to fanaticism in religious matters.
In business, however, religion usually takes a back seat. Gun-running, kidnapping, and drugs, among other activities, were recognized by AQIM as well as Tuareg militants as fast ways of building up the treasuries needed to finance their revolutions.
When a newly constituted (or reconstituted by any other name) MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) launched attacks in northern Mali in the middle of January, all the old anti-Tuareg reflexes surfaced in the south (south of the line between Timbuktu, in the center, and Gao near the border with Niger) — criminals, shiftless bums, paid mercenaries first of Gaddafi and now of al Qaeda, tools of the French…. There were some ugly incidents in population centers, though it has to be said they did not degenerate into race riots. The government insisted it absolutely would not discuss the breakup of Mali even as, true to himself, President Touré called for dialogue and national unity.
INTO THIS MIX we just happened to step in. There is of course a school of thought that cannot suffer the arbitrary nature of history, and who are convinced we are in Mali to support a military repression of the Tuareg people. We have a long-standing commitment to Mali — economic development, political liberalization: democracy and free markets, the ticket to progress. Whether this is really possible or is just another expression of neo-Wilsonian, boondoggling American throw-money-at-it optimism, we shall perhaps some day know.
There has been real progress in Mali, over the past 20 years, albeit uneven and bitter. One of the most remote, poor countries in the world has several viable economic sectors, and people can see the tangible improvements in their lives. They drive mopeds (sold to them by the Chinese) over roads, some of which were built with USAID grants. They also see the adverse consequences — the destruction of traditional family life, the awful, if lively and exciting, sprawling slums into which the cities have grown, with all the attendant shabbiness. The question is whether the sacrifices made to achieve the kind of political-economic takeoff that gets high marks in the IMF and the State Department can be converted into something tangible for most Malians. This remains to be seen. One measure of uncertainty: Most — by which is meant, 85 percent — of Malian females, including the generation now in its teens, are reliably estimated to be mutilated. Most Malian children (and of course their parents) have only the most rudimentary education and little or no health care.
These dreary statistics can be extended. But they are the measure of the challenge that Touré’s successor faces. Touré insists he is leaving office at the end of his term in a couple of months, no matter what the security situation is.
American forces have been in and out of Mali for several years now, as they have been in other Sahel countries, primarily to help the small army — the Mali Defense Force numbers 7,000 men and a few women — develop a counter-terrorism capability, to the extent possible in cooperation with its neighbors. Our policy with regard to the Tuareg question is that it is not our problem. The Malians themselves seem to prefer it this way. However, when supplies were airlifted into an embattled northern town called Tessalit recently, the MNLA accused the U.S. of taking sides and violating an obligation to neutrality. The Mali army did not play up the help, and instead its supporters among the hard-liners in the political class and the media focused on the admittedly unfounded theory that France is behind the rebellion. It is true that the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, referred to the rebellion’s early successes in the north in what could be heard as congratulatory tones. But the French embassy in Bamako has insisted, as has Juppé, that the territorial integrity of Mali is sacrosanct and the foreign minister’s remarks were grossly misinterpreted.
For us, the Tuareg rebellion presents a bitter opportunity to think through our African policies. How much help, and in what form, can we give countries — and Mali is not the only one — with dreadful problems potentially capable of putting entire regions into turmoil? Are there areas of political cooperation and compromise that we can encourage, or should we dig in with the sides we have already committed to and concentrate on security? As battles rage in northern Mali for small desert villages that no one can place on a map, we must think about the costs and the benefits of a long-term involvement in countries that in some ways are even more far away than Afghanistan, where at least we have a certain historical relation due to that country’s role in our long competition with the Soviet Union. The Tuareg could be doing themselves a huge disfavor if they are — as they deny but as Malian sources insist — indeed working at least in the short term with Salafists to achieve their ends, for that is almost surely a recipe for keeping us involved.