Shaky Allies: Oh, Mali!

by Keane Chukwuneta/DPR International Editor American involvement in Mali, once seen as a key part of counterterrorism efforts in Africa, backfired spectacularly over the course of 2012. The United States entered Mali nearly a decade ago as part of an effort to counter extremist Islamic groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Africa.

What was initially seen as a promising first step in fighting the war on terror in Africa has devolved into a quagmire resulting in a French invasion of Mali in January of 2013 and the possible long term deployment of a UN peacekeeping force.

Counterterrorism training in Mali was supposed to leave the United States with an ally in Africa that was could counter groups like AQIM. However the overemphasis on military training and the ignorance of investment in meaningful infrastructure left the United States with a well-equipped but weak, corrupt, and unstable ally in its war on terror.

Set in West Africa, Mali is one of the 25 poorest nations in the world, full of competing ethnic groups and fraught with corruption. In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, professor and former education minister Issa Ndiaye said of Malian stability, “Our democracy was a façade, the state was already collapsed before the rebellion and the coup.”

Mali’s precarious balance was rocked first by a Tuareg rebellion in the North in January 2012. The rebellion began with an influx of fighters from a secular nationalist Tuareg group, the Movement National de Liberation de L’Azawad (MNLA), returning from fighting in Libya for Col. Muammar Gadhafi.

Any remaining political stability was shattered by a March 21, 2012 coup by disgruntled military officers who disagreed with the government over how best to deal with the MNLA rebellion. To add insult to injury, the officer who led the coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, was trained in Quantico, Virginia by the US Marine Corps.

To hear it told by Western media outlets, Captain Sanogo was another man in the line of power hungry African officers who styled himself as a dictator. While this is true to some degree, there is much that isn’t being said about the state of the Malian military, and its integrity.

The Malian government was corrupt, and sickeningly so. In an interview with Le Monde Diplomatique, a French Specialist on Mali said of the Malian military and government, “The higher ranks had a collection of cars that the entire military budget couldn’t have bought… The Malian regime was one of the most corrupt in West Africa.”

During the disarray of the coup, the MNLA and their Islamic allies Ansar Dine took the initiative and attacked confused government troops. They pushed south and by April 6, 2012 the MNLA and Ansar Dine controlled the northern 60% of Mali. The key cities of the arid north Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu were under the control of the MNLA or Ansar Dine.

These cities and their sites of cultural importance – including texts dating back to the 13th century as well as tombs of Sufi Muslim saints – were destroyed by Ansar Dine fighters who claimed that these items were idolatrous. Control of Northern Mali also gave Ansar Dine and MOJWA control of very lucrative smuggling routes in Northern Mali. Selling for as little as $2,500 a kilogram in Latin America and as much as $75,000 a kilogram in Europe, Latin American cocaine and other illegal goods make their way through drug routes in Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Mali. The longer groups like Ansar Dine control these routes, the richer they become, allowing them to fund new adventures in other nations.

Between April and June last year, divisions between the MNLA and Ansar Dine began to surface, divisions which ultimately turned this conflict on its head. On the nature of the relationship between Ansar Dine and the MNLA French news outlet France24 stated that “the Tuareg separatist group MNLA has been on-again, off-again with the Islamist Ansar Dine, forging and breaking alliances, with all the impetuousness of a Hollywood couple.”

This shaky alliance was thrown to the fire when on June 6th, protests against Ansar Dine’s strict implementation of sharia law and in support of the secular MNLA broke out in Kidal, prompting a violent response from Ansar Dine. By June 8th, the MNLA and Ansar Dine were in open conflict with one another. Ansar Dine received support in the fighting from a Gao based extremist Islamic group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). The MNLA was chased out of Northern Mali by mid-November.

At this point, only the remaining Malian forces stood between Ansar Dine and MOJWA and the other 40% of Mali. Both the Malian government, now led by interim President Dioncounda Traoré, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) requested Western intervention to prevent the complete loss of the entire nation to extremist Islamic terrorists.

On January 11, 2013, with the aid of American and English transport planes, French troops landed in Mali and began a campaign titled Opération Serval that has effectively pushed Ansar Dine, and MOJWA back to the northernmost regions of Mali. The French took back the cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and with the help of the Chadian military, Kidal. With nearly all of Mali back in the hands of the French and Malian government, some may have reason to let out a sigh of relief. However just one month later, a Malian teenager blew himself up at a checkpoint in Gao killing one Malian soldier.

This leaves plenty of reason to believe that some Ansar Dine and MOJWA fighters may have melted into the general population. This suggests that the French and African Union troops may be in for an insurgent campaign not unlike those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At this point, it’s hard to look at US involvement in Mali and think of any positives that could come of this conflict. After a decade of training, Malian troops routed within the first months of the conflict due to government incompetency, choosing either to join the factions partitioning the nation, or melt into the civilian population. Those that didn’t flee took part in a coup that further destabilized the nation and set off a chain of events that culminated in the northern 60% of Mali being controlled by the very forces the United States spent a decade trying to combat.

In short, American involvement appears to have made the job easier, not harder for the very groups being fought.

As Operation Serval draws to a close, the future for Mali appears much brighter than it did in November, when it appeared that for the first time groups sponsored by Al Qaeda could seize control of an entire nation. Still, the current situation which involves the possible deployment of a 10,000 strong UN peacekeeping force is a far cry from the self-sufficient Mali that could defend itself from Islamic factions dreamed up a decade ago by American officials.

With the conflict entering a new phase of French occupation, it is unlikely that Ansar Dine and MOJWA will attempt to retake the north as they simply lack the numbers needed to overcome such strength. Still, the suicide bombing indicates that Mali may go down a road of insurgent violence á la Iraq. It is worth noting that this is unlikely as Mali is considerably more moderate than other Muslim nations and the groups Ansar Dine and MOJWA enjoy very little to no popularity with most Malians.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Malian citizens who are caught up in this conflict. Generally speaking, the interests of the US and France aren’t alligned with theirs as far as terrorism is concerned. Neither do the interests of AQIM, Ansar Dine, or MOJWA reflect the wants and needs of average Malians.

Accounts in western media described the elation of Malian citizens at having been liberated from the rule of Ansar Dine. Yet still Malians in the north did endure one year of one-and-off fighting, as well as seven months of life under Ansar Dine, MOJWA and their particularly strict and cruel interpretation of sharia law.

If over the last decade, the U.S. simply refused to offer credibility and military aid to a paper tiger, and worked instead at developing a Marshall Plan to build Mali’s infrastructure to combat extremist Islam this entire crisis could have been avoided. The Tuareg nationalists of the MNLA would have been content to be Malians, and Ansar Dine, AQIM, and MOJWA would have been unable to enter a heavily fortified, U.S.-supported Mali.

As long as the US continues its policy of pumping dollars and equipment into armies controlled by weak, corrupt and ineffective governments, we’ll sadly never get to find out.