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A Sobering Conflict in an Unforgiving Desert


Interim president Dioncounda Traore of Mali
The interim president of Mali, Dioncounda Traore, at the Bamako airport after the March 22, 2012 coup and before he was beaten by protestors in the presidential palace. He has not returned to Mali after hospitalization in Paris. JOE PENNEY

BAMAKO, Mali — At the bus station here in the capital this spring, tales of trepidation from besieged northern towns like Gao and Timbuktu, where Tuareg and Islamist rebels took power after a coup d’état in late March, were commonplace.

“There’s no life there because there is no law,” one man said after arriving from Timbuktu. “When you step out of your house, you see guns everywhere you look.”

Today, Mali is suffering from crises throughout most of the country. Its northern two-thirds, about the size of France, are under control of Tuaregs and Islamists allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Its southern third is split between the military junta that seized power and a shaky transitional government.

The chaos after the coup, which occurred in Bamako, led the northern rebels to take the region’s main cities, Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. The messy situation in Mali has actually been simmering for more than a decade and was partly set off by the fall of the regime of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya in 2011, aided by Western military intervention acting on a United Nations Security Council resolution. But American-backed militarization efforts in the Sahel region, where Mali is located, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks have also played a large role.

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A growing chorus of voices – government ministers in Mauritania and Niger, well-connected American analysts, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and a press contingent led by Le Monde’s editorial board – is calling for military involvement backed by Western armies and finances. But that could end up being the real security threat in the Malian catastrophe.

Ethnic Tuaregs and Mali’s government have fought over the north since the country’s days as a French colony, at the start of the 20th century. The Tuaregs have fought wars of independence with the Malian state three times since the country’s independence in 1960 but have never won much territory. When NATO’s intervention in Libya helped topple Qaddafi, it also upset a fragile power balance in northern Mali, dislodging the nation.

Qaddafi employed hundreds of Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger – known for their combat ability in the Sahara – during his border war against Chad. After Qaddafi’s fall, the  Tuaregs  faced hostility in Libya, so they returned to Mali, cleaning out lightly guarded arms depots along the way.

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A nation called Azawad

Last fall, the Tuaregs started an insurgency campaign to create an independent homeland in the north, called Azawad. They named themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known by its French acronym MNLA. The arms, fighters and expertise amassed from Libya put them in a strong position to fight the Malian army.

After several MNLA military victories in early 2012, some distraught Malian soldiers, led by an American-trained captain, Amadou Haya Sanogo, staged a mutiny that derailed into a full coup on March 22, deposing the democratically elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré.

Meanwhile, the northern rebels, fighting with the Islamist group Ansar Dine (meaning in Arabic, “Defenders of the Faith”), took Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. Since then, Ansar Dine has broken its alliance with the MNLA and now controls much of the region. It has also allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose roots lie in the Algerian Islamist movement, and has been desecrating Muslim shrines in Timbuktu.

Mali faces an existential crisis of huge proportions. Al Qaeda has controlled swathes of the Sahara for years, but the group seems to have broader access now. Recent reports of Sharia law being instituted in the north suggest that Al Qaeda is moving from its role as roving bands of Kalashnikov-wielding fighters to administrative bigwigs. Regional leaders have rung the alarm bells. Mauritania’s president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, recently spoke on French radio RFI, saying that “all the ingredients are there to make Mali an Afghanistan.”

American military engagement

American counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel formed after the Sept. 11 attacks, when in 2002, the Pentagon began the Pan-Sahel Initiative, a training program that became the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership (part of America’s larger war on terror in the region), a multilateral program in nine Sahelian countries.

Since 2005, the US has spent more than $500 million on the operation, and in January 2007 President George W. Bush inaugurated Africa Command, or Africom, a Pentagon effort concentrated on Africa. Less than a month later, the Algerian group known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat rebranded itself as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Much of America’s diplomatic and military involvement in the Sahel is done with France, the most influential outside power in the region.

American military strategy in the region reflects its foreign policy in Africa over all: it is not high priority globally, and it is centered on consolidating democracy, which roughly translates to semitransparent elections, privatization of important industries and a president, a parliament and rhetoric from the executive branch extolling liberal freedoms. When the US has special interests in a specific country, like Equatorial Guinea, the bar for these requirements lowers.

It comes as no surprise that the US is hesitant to put combat troops on the ground to fight Al Qaeda in the Sahel. A leaked 2009 diplomatic cable from a US diplomat in Burkina Faso mulled the dangers of an Iraq-like unilateral war against Al Qaeda: “If we act without international partners, the countries of the region will be highly suspicious of our motives and will refuse to cooperate or will work against us. In addition, if other donors are left out, they may be suspicious of our motives and presence and advise regional countries to resist U.S. initiatives.”

Despite the Americans’ desire to walk softly in Africa, recent remarks point to a more active future for the US military as African leaders seek security for their regimes. “We keep getting asked to do more and more and more, and go to more places . . . I don’t recall anybody saying, ‘We don’t want you to come here anymore,’ ” Africom’s chief-of-staff,  Carter F. Ham, said in 2011.

Security breakdown in Sahel

Some left-leaning Malian politicians and intellectuals released a statement after the March 22 coup amounting to a “good riddance” letter to corrupt Malian politicians, who fell short of democracy-building work.Yet during the Touré years, the country was perhaps America’s strongest ally in the region. A 2007 diplomatic cable quotes Touré telling the American ambassador that “he had recently heard a report on Radio France that described Mali as the ‘favorite child’ of the U.S. President Touré said he was extremely happy to hear Mali described as such.”

Kelly Cahalan, a public affairs officer at Africom, described in a recent e-mail interview for this essay that Africom’s activities “strengthen counter-terrorism and border security,” promote democratic governance, reinforce bilateral military ties and enhance development and institution building.

“This increases,” she added, “their capacity and capability to deny safe haven to terrorists and ultimately defeat violent extremist organizations in the region.”

Yet Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is stronger than ever. Although the influx of fighters and weapons from Libya sparked the final destruction of Mali, “both democracy and the state in Mali were always extremely fragile,” Achille Mbembe, a University of Witwatersrand professor in South Africa said in an interview for this essay.

One reason America’s partnership with Touré’s regime failed to produce positive results is that its aid strategies were generally shortsighted. West African armies, many of which owe their legitimacy to their colonial struggles, often become patronage networks that consider securing the country a secondary task.

Few African wars between countries have been fought in the continent, whereas most battles are civil wars, so the armies often play big roles in underdevelopment and stagnation on their home turfs. Efforts to keep the military out of politics in Mali, for example, led to its “embourgeoisement” and the neglect of its real purpose, Mbembe said.

Moreover, most Sahelian armies – including those of Algeria, Mauritania and Mali as well as Al Qaeda – are said to contain elements that profit from the increasingly lucrative drug smuggling business through the Sahara, but basic facts about the drug trade are unknown. Gregory Mann, a Mali expert at Columbia University, calls the trafficking issue “the million-dollar question.”

An ‘African Afghanistan’

The West African regional body, Ecowas, which is chaired by Alassane Ouattara, the Ivorian president whose ascension to power was assisted by French air strikes with UN help, has pushed for a Western-approved response to the Mali problem through sanctions and militarization. A president and a prime minister have been installed, promising to hold elections, even though power still lies with the junta.

Ecowas has also decided to send troops to aid the Malian army in a possible fight against the northern rebels. But this is contingent on the Malian government inviting them as well as American and French logistical support, both of which are beyond Ecowas’s control.

Even if Ecowas forces, with the approval of the United Nations Security Council, were to land in Mali, success in the unforgiving desert against the Tuareg and Ansar Dine rebels is low.

“If you can imagine these 3,000 wonderful Ecowas soldiers being marched up from wherever they’re going to be marched up from and simply going to attack the Tuaregs, it would simply be a disaster,” said Jeremy Keenan, a British anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

The void of clear-cut solutions by Ecowas and the African Union has left some African leaders pining for France and the US to take charge of the situation. Thomas Yayi Boni, the president of Benin and chairman of the African Union, recently told French radio RFI that “we do not want to have an African Afghanistan, which is why we think that, as a permanent member of the Security Council, France can play a leadership role.”

But if African leaders don’t have the solutions, a glance into recent history reveals that neither do the French nor the Americans and continued dependency on them is not the answer.

This essay was adapted from one that originally appeared in Al-Akhbar.

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This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lagos. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.

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