Mali: From forgotten lands to a blogger’s dream

The usually sleepy country of Mali, a landlocked country of 15 million people which before 2012 rarely graced the headlines, has in the past 10 months become a central focus with near-daily coverage in the American and European press. And because it is too good an opportunity to pass up, Mali’s current crisis will consequently be a significant focus of this blog. But why, you ask, does the now slightly clichéd conflict situation in northern Mali belong on this otherwise “hipster” blog of sorts that prides itself on being different, covering “forgotten” conflicts, etc.?

Well, you got me there. As a lover of obscure places (e.g., Central African Republic, Uzbekistan), I suppose by entering the Mali debate, I am “selling out” by some definition. However, my best answer is this: one aim of this blog is to be on the “cutting edge” of analyzing conflicts before they become cliché. In this case, Mali is the quintessential poster child. For one, Mali is (let’s be real here) still a rather obscure subject—American expertise on the country is slim pickings (despite the sudden emergence of new “experts” in the past year). Secondly, the West African nation was indeed facing a “forgotten” conflict years in the making, one that was understudied yet integral for understanding conflict dynamics in West Africa and beyond. A regular and insightful focus on Mali pre-2012 would have now benefited analysts attempting to assess the current crisis. The inevitable “I told you so” quips might have been as extraordinary as research on Al Qaeda before 9/11 or the handful of Congressmen and women who objected to the war in Iraq before 2003.

That is…it would have been great, if I had begun my Mali musings a year-and-a-half ago. Alas, perhaps in time I will have better luck predicting the next crisis (Jordan? Kenya?). But for now, the crisis in Mali still leaves much to be digested and scrutinized before becoming completely cliché…

First, a brief introduction. In early 2012, few analysts beyond die-hard West Africanist PhDs and a handful of Mali watchers at the CIA devoted much time to dissecting Mali’s trials and tribulations. It was not until a triple-whammy of dramatic events in the spring/summer—President Amadou Touré’s ouster in Bamako, a reinvigorated Tuareg insurgency that boldly seized a slice of northern Mali the size of Texas, and a subsequent transfer of power over that territory to a triumvirate of Islamic extremist groups (Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO, or MUJWA), and Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM))—that the wider analytical community started listening.

Of course, the three events were intricately linked. Frustration with the government in Bamako (Mali’s capital) and its inability to contain the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)—a Tuareg-led rebellion gaining strength across northern and central Mali—spurred the military coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo in March 2012. Ironically for Sanogo, his power grab led to the very military collapse he had feared. The MNLA took advantage of the ensuing chaos, overrunning northern (and parts of central) Mali within two weeks of the coup. It dramatically marched into and quickly captured the north’s three critical nodes—Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu—by early April. The MNLA then boldly announced its independence from Mali, proclaiming the new nation of “Azawad” with Gao as its capital.

At this point, the international community flinched. But what came next was far more worrisome. Though Malian forces had fled areas north of Konna in early April, the Tuareg movement immediately faced threats from its right flank. Ansar Dine and MUJAO, Salafist-leaning groups who fought alongside the MNLA, quickly rejected the MNLA’s proclamation of independence. Much like Boko Haram in Nigeria, these two parties wanted all-or-nothing: the entire country, not just the north, would be an Islamic state. Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and a third group of like-minded Islamists—AQIM—quickly renounced their alliance with the MNLA and turned against them. By July 2012, the hardened and well-equipped Islamist fighters had seized Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu.

By now, foreign governments were paying serious attention. The Islamist’s strides in northern Mali happened so quickly that it put the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 1996 and the Islamic Courts Union’s 2006 brief occupation of southern Somalia to shame. Counterterrorism analysts and scholars resurrected an old debate: could this be the next jihadist “safe haven”? (as if AQIM did not already operate with virtually free reign there before 2012) Historians and international cultural organizations winced at stories of destruction in the fabled Timbuktu, where Islamists reduced centuries-old UNESCO-protected shrines and other buildings to rubble.

But as summer turned to fall, the chatter gradually subsided again. Communities under Islamist control suffered under shar’ia rule, while the international community dragged its feet on authorizing an African-led force to restore Mali’s territorial integrity. Several months and many UN security resolutions later, regional and global actors agreed in December 2012 that ECOMOG, the military wing of the East African Community of West African States (ECOWAS), would send 3,000 troops from neighboring countries. It was not expected to deploy until the following September.

A month later, France took the world (including Islamists in northern Mali) by surprise, swooping in to save the day in January 2013 as MUJAO inched closer to threatening Bamako itself. This is when the newspaper chatter exploded. French troop movements and air bombings in towns foreign observers had likely never heard of before (Niono, Konna, Douentza) made page 1 of the New York Times and others. Despite a whole host of naysayers (many who had never written about Mali previously), the French-led intervention quickly reversed Islamist gains and drove Ansar Dine, AQIM, and MUJAO out of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal by the end of the month. The Islamists scattered, locals cheered freedom from shar’ia, and residents in Bamako and Timbuktu rolled out the red carpet for French President Francois Hollande, hailing him as a “savior.”

It is too early to turn the page on the Malian conflict, however. Astute observers—including the French government itself—are quick to note that the coast is not yet clear. Reports from inside northern Mali note that the Islamist rebels have been preparing for an eventual blowback, carving out bases in the remote hills of the Adrar des Ifoghas. Porous borders likely made it easy for others—including AQIM—to escape unscathed to neighboring Algeria, Mauritania, or Niger. Many members of MUJAO have clearly not left; just this last Sunday, a group of sly MUJAO fighters launched a surprise assault in the heart of Gao. And most importantly, with a fragile government in Bamako, prospects for a long-term political solution—a dire necessity to deal with the discontented Tuareg population—are bleak. Therefore, the country is likely to face problems, even turmoil, for some time to come.

Fortunately for an aspiring blogger, 10 months of media and think tank chatter has not yet been enough to fully digest Mali’s conflict dynamics. Few soothsayers predicted the French military would intervene, as they did in mid-January, and now that it has, the game has changed. The short- and long-term consequences, like all crisis situations, are not yet clear, and thus there remains much room for debate.

I too am certainly no Mali or West Africa expert (hence the blog, forcing me to step up my game!), and so through subsequent posts, I hope to not only contribute to the discussion but also advance my own depth of understanding—about internal dynamics unique to Mali itself, as well as how other conflicts may inform examination of the current crisis and how the Mali episode may impact future political and security decisions for France, the United States, and other important global actors.

For now, I pose three questions to start, which will be the focus of upcoming posts:

  • What does Mali 2012-13 tell us about conflict regionalization? Is the vast and harsh Sahara a barricade or a highway for Islamic extremists and security threats?
  • How does France, which boasts a long history of intervention in Africa, approach security decision-making in Africa? More specifically, what are its stated interests and what are its true interests in Africa?
  • How will the collapse of the Malian military impact the future of security capacity-building (e.g., security assistance, burden sharing)—a central tenet of US strategy for dealing with African security threats?

More will follow, of course. But for now, stay tuned for the first (real) post to come! As always, comments and suggestions welcome.

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