Mali: The Next Afghanistan?

Commentary No. 340, November 1, 2012

Up to very recently, very, very few persons, outside of its immediate neighbors and its former colonial power (France) had even heard of Mali, much less knew anything about its history and its politics. Today, northern Mali has been taken over militarily by “Salafist” groups sharing the outlook of al-Qaeda and practicing the harshest version of sharia – with lapidation and amputation as punishments.

This takeover has been condemned by a unanimous vote of the U.N. Security Council, which deemed it “a threat to international peace and security.” The resolution cited “the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation” and “the increasing entrenchment of terrorist elements” and the potential “consequences for the countries of the Sahel and beyond.” The U.N. declared it was ready to consider the constitution of an “international military force [to recover] the occupied regions in the north of Mali.”

The resolution was unanimous but toothless. In fact, Mali today represents the clearest possible case of geopolitical paralysis. All the major and minor powers in the region and beyond the region are genuinely concerned, and yet no one seems willing or able to do anything for fear that doing anything would result in what is being called the “Afghanistanization” of Mali. Furthermore, there are at least a dozen different actors involved, and almost all of them are deeply divided among themselves.

How did this all start? The country called Mali (what was called the French Sudan during colonial rule beginning in 1892) has been an independent state since 1960. It initially had a secular single-party government, which was socialist and nationalist. It was overturned by a military coup in 1968. The coup leaders in turn created another one-party regime, but one that was more market-oriented. It was in turn overthrown by another military coup in 1991, which adopted a constitution that permitted multiple parties. One party nonetheless dominated the political situation again. But because of the multi-party electoral processes, the Malian regime was now hailed in the West as “democratic” and exemplary.

Throughout this time, the politicians and senior civil servants in the successive governments all mainly came from the ethnic groups in the southern 40% of the country. The more sparsely settled northern 60% was peopled by Tuareg groups who were marginalized and resented it. They periodically rebelled and talked of wanting an independent state.

Many Tuareg fled to Libya (and Algeria) whose southern regions were also peopled by Tuareg. Some Tuareg found employment in the Libyan military. The confusion following the fall of Muammar Qaddafi allowed Tuareg soldiers to obtain weapons and return to Mali to take up the struggle for Azawad, the name they gave to an independent Tuareg state. They were organized as the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA).

On March 22, a group of junior officers led by Amadou Haya Sanogo announced a third post-independence coup. They specifically alleged that the major reason for the coup was the inefficacity of the Malian army to deal with the secessionist pretentions of the MNLA. France, the United States, and most other West African states, declared strong opposition to the coup and demanded the restoration of the ousted government.

An uneasy compromise was achieved between the Sanogo forces and the previous regime, in which a new president was installed ad interim. He chose a prime minister with family links to the leader of the 1968 coup. To this day, it is not sure who controls what in southern Mali. But the army is ill-trained and incapable of engaging in serious military action in the north of the country.

Meanwhile in the north, the relatively secularist Moslems involved in the MNLA sought alliances with more fundamentalist groups. Almost immediately, the latter ousted the MNLA and took over control of all the major cities in northern Mali. However, these more fundamentalist elements were in fact three different groups: the Ansar Eddine who were local Tuareg; Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), composed mostly of non-Malians; and the Mouvement pour le Tawhid et du Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO), a breakaway from AQIM. MUJAO had broken with AQIM because it deemed AQIM too exclusively interested in North Africa, and it wanted to spread its doctrine to West African countries. These groups control different areas and it is unclear how united they are, either tactically or in objectives.

The next series of actors are the neighbors, all of whom are unhappy that the “Salafist” groups have taken effective control of such a large region, groups that are quite open about their desire to spread their doctrines to these neighbors. The neighbors however are equally divided about what to do. One group is the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which consists of 15 states – all the former colonies of Great Britain, France, and Portugal plus Liberia – with the sole exception of Mauritania.

ECOWAS has wanted to help resolve the differences in the Malian government. They have suggested that they might be willing to send in some troops to regain control of northern Mali. The problem is twofold. The groups contesting in southern Mali are afraid of a semi-permanent intervention of ECOWAS, especially the Sanogo faction. And the only country that really has troops to offer is Nigeria, which is very reluctant to envisage this possibility because they need these troops to deal with their internal “Salafist” problem, the Boko Harem.

Mauritania, which has been more successful than other West African governments in containing “Salafist” groups, is very fearful of a spread of these forces into Mauritania, especially should they agree to fight them militarily in Mali. Libya, aside from the fact that it faces enormous internal turmoil among its many armed groups, is especially afraid that the Tuareg populations in southern Libya would join in an expanded Azawad.

Both France and the United States feel it is urgent to oust the “Salafists” from northern Mali. But the United States, overextended militarily as it is, does not want to send in any troops. France, or rather President Hollande, is taking the most forceful stand. They seem to be ready to send in troops. But France is the former colonial power, and French troops in Mali could arouse a very strong nationalist response.

So what France and the United States are trying to do is to convince Algeria, which borders Mali on the north, and has a powerful army, to be the lead force in a military operation. The Algerians are hyper-dubious about the idea. For one thing, southern Algeria is Tuareg country. For another thing, the Algerian government feels it has contained the “Salafist” danger so far and is deeply afraid that a military intervention in Mali would undo this containment.

So, everyone wants the “Salafist” groups to go away somehow, provided that someone else does the dirty work. And large groups in all these countries are opposed to any action whatsoever on the grounds that it would “Afghanistanize” the situation. That is, they fear that military action against the “Salafists” would strengthen, not weaken, them by attracting an influx of al-Qaeda-oriented individuals and groups to northern Mali. Afghanistan has become the symbol of what not to do. But doing nothing is otherwise called geopolitical paralysis.

The bottom line is that Mali is suffering from the chaotic geopolitical scene. What seems most probable is that there will be no military intervention. Whether the local populations in northern Mali, accustomed to a very tolerant “Sufi” version of Islam and most unhappy now, will rise up against the “Salafists” remains to be seen.