US in Mali: Disintegration of a State

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An elderly refugee from northern Mali stands under the shade of a tree at the UNHCR Mangaize refugee camp, 145 km north of Niamey, on 2 June 2012. (photo: AFP - Issouf Sanogo)

By: Joe Penney

Published Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dakar/Bamako - At the Bamako bus station, tales of trepidation from besieged northern towns like Gao and Timbuktu, where Tuareg and Islamist rebels have taken power following a coup d’état in Bamako in late March, are commonplace. “There is no more life [in the north],” said one man arriving in Bamako from Timbuktu in recent weeks, who declined to give his name for security reasons. “There’s no life there because there is no law. When you step out of your house, you see guns everywhere you look.”

Today, Mali is suffering from multiple crises in almost every part of the country. Its northern two-thirds are under control of Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups allied with the local al-Qaeda franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Its southern third is split between a military junta that seized power in a coup in March and a shaky, as of yet ineffective transitional government whose president was recently beaten up by thuggish protesters.

The messy situation in Mali has been simmering for over a decade and was partly triggered by Western military intervention in Libya. But American-backed militarization efforts in the Sahel region since 9/11 have also played a large role, and as a growing chorus of voices – including Mauritanian and Nigerien ministers, well-connected American analysts, and a press contingent led by Le Monde’s editorial board – calls for a military intervention backed by Western military and financial might, the real security threat is that efforts to address the Malian catastrophe will follow the path of Western military intervention.

NATO Connection

Ethnic Tuaregs and the Malian state have fought over Mali’s north, including its ancient cities of Timbuktu and Gao, since Mali’s beginnings 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 Mali’s independence in 1960, but have never been able to garner much territory. When NATO’s intervention in Libya toppled Muammar Gaddafi, it also upset a fragile power balance in the region that eventually dislodged the Malian state.

Gaddafi employed hundreds of Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger – reputed for their combat ability in the harsh Saharan climate – during his decade-long border war against southern neighbor Chad. After the fall of Gaddafi, Malian Tuaregs who had fought for the Green Legion were faced with a state hostile to them. Ibrahim Bahanga, a longtime Tuareg rebel leader who was exiled in Libya from 2009 until Gaddafi’s fall, returned to northern Mali in March 2011. He then contacted his cousin Mohamed Ag Najim, a Malian Tuareg who was a colonel in the Libyan army in charge of an elite unit in Sabha, a desert outpost in Libya’s southwest, and according to French magazine Jeune Afrique, Bahanga told Najim to come home with as many men and arms as possible.

In July, Najim left Libya for northern Mali, cleaning out lightly guarded arms depots along the way. By the time he and other Tuareg fighters arrived in Mali, Bahanga and other veterans of Tuareg rebellions saw an opportunity for military victory against the Malian state. Although Bahanga died in mysterious conditions labeled a “car crash” in late August, Malian Tuaregs held a meeting in October and decided on an insurgency campaign for an independent Tuareg homeland in Mali’s 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 had put them in a strong position to fight the Malian army.

After several MNLA military victories in the first few months of 2012, a distraught group of Malian soldiers led by American-trained Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo led a mutiny that quickly derailed into a full-scale coup d’état on March 22nd, deposing the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Touré.

The chaos in Bamako led the northern rebels, fighting with Islamist group Ansar Eddine (Defenders of the Faith), to take the north’s three main cities, Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, in three successive days from March 30 to April 1. Since then, Ansar Eddine has split from its alliances with the MNLA and taken control of much of Timbuktu Gao and Kidal, and have allied themselves with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group whose roots lie in the Algerian Islamist movement.

Fraught by the loss of the north and chaos in the south as the junta leaders spar with the shaky transitional government for power, Mali is facing an existential crisis of proportions it has never before experienced. AQIM has controlled swathes of territory in the Sahara for years, but now the group seems to have unfettered access to major Saharan cities like Timbuktu.

Despite their limited size of a few hundred fighters, no other al-Qaeda branch has a safe-haven as large as theirs; Mali’s north is the size of France. Recent reports of sharia law established in Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu suggest that al-Qaeda now plays a major role in the administration of cities and is moving away from its ‘traditional’ role of roving bands of Kalashnikov-wielding fighters traversing the desert sands in Toyota Hilux convoys.

Regional leaders have rung the alarm bells in the past few weeks. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz recently drew comparisons to Afghanistan on French radio RFI, remarking that “all the ingredients are there to make Mali an Afghanistan.” The security threat constituted by AQIM is “France’s number one issue in Africa,” according to a leaked 2010 diplomatic cable, while Algerian defense minister Abdelmalek Guenaizia remarked to Africom commander Gen. Ham in 2009 that “these are not simple warlords we are facing…no country is safe. We need to remain vigilant.”

American Military Engagement

American counter-terrorism strategy in the Sahel took shape after the September 11th attacks, when in 2002, the Pentagon launched the “Pan-Sahel Initiative”, a training-based program that transformed into the “Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership” (part of the US’ larger war on terror in the region, “Operation Enduring Freedom: Trans-Sahara”), a multi-lateral program focusing on “capacity-building” to “fight terrorism” in nine Sahelian countries.

Since 2005, the US has spent more than $500 million on the operation, and in January 2007 George W. Bush inaugurated Africa Command, or Africom, a new Pentagon command focusing exclusively on Africa. Less than a month later, the Algerian group known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) rebranded itself as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Much of the engagement with Sahelian states, whether diplomatic or military, is done in conjunction with France, the most influential external power in the region.

American military strategy in the Sahel reflects American foreign policy in Africa on the whole: it is not a very high priority on the global scale, and it is focused on the consolidation of “democracy,” which roughly translates to semi-transparent elections, privatization of key industries, a president, a parliament and rhetoric from the executive branch extolling liberal democratic freedoms. When the US has special interests in the country, however, like in Equatorial Guinea, Uganda or Algeria, the bar for these requirements lowers dramatically.

Driven by the fear of African perceptions of American military intervention in Africa as imperialist, Africom has been keen to “adopt a low profile,” said Abdou Abdelkader, editor-in-chief of the Mauritanian news website Al Akhbar. Africom commanders repeatedly stress on overseas trips that they are not seeking to open any new military bases in Africa. In the Sahel, the US also wants to avoid being seen as butting in on “a region viewed as a French sphere of influence” and risk alienating a strong ally, according to Abdelkader.

Thus it comes as no surprise that America is extremely hesitant to put boots on the ground to fight al-Qaeda in the Sahel and has (for the most part) limited its activities to training and material support. A leaked 2009 diplomatic cable mulls the dangers of an Iraq-like unilateral war in the fight against AQIM: “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.”

When Africom wanted to have a larger say in the region, the State Department, wary of the extremely negative diplomatic effects, has intervened against the military command. In a leaked diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Mali in 2009, for example, the ambassador argued against Africom’s idea of sending “advisers” to aid the Malian army against AQIM on the northern battlefield, saying that “U.S. advisers would likely serve as lightening rods, exposing themselves and the Malian contingents to specific risk.” The Mauritanian journalist Abdelkader also argued that “any direct intervention by a foreign force would end up serving the goals of the terrorist groups.”

Yet despite the Americans’ stated desire to walk softly in Africa, recent remarks point to a more active future for the US military on the continent 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 Gen. Carter F Ham recently said.”

Wikileaks cables from the Sahel region back up Gen. Ham’s comments. A cursory overview of cables leaked from the embassy in Bamako shows that President Touré and Malian army generals repeatedly requested more training and materials like aircraft and weapons from the US during their tenure. In a 2009 cable from the embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania, then-Prime Minister Moulaye Ould Mohame Laghdaf told embassy officials that “the role of the U.S. is essential, and no one but the U.S. can help Mauritania as much as the U.S.”

Breakdown of Security in Sahel

An instructive example of future American military engagement in the Sahel region is in Mali itself, which during the Touré years was perhaps America’s strongest ally in the region. In a 2007 diplomatic cable highlighting this close relationship, President Touré told the American ambassador “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 and that he agreed with the description,” and added "you can count on us”.

But when the results of America’s partnership with its “favorite child” are measured against its principles of action, the relationship starts to tear at the seams. Major Kelly Cahalan, a public affairs officer at Africom described in an email interview 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 their capacity and capability to deny safe haven to terrorists and ultimately defeat violent extremist organizations in the region.”

In regards to Mali, Cahalan’s description could not be further from reality. After a decade of training and other military-to-military engagements with the Malian army, the country has completely imploded. In the past five years, AQIM has grown to its strongest-ever point, dominating a territory the size of France that is the largest al-Qaeda safe-haven in the world today.

Malian soldiers have suffered humiliating defeats in the north, and in the face of advancing rebel groups in March, they completely abandoned their positions. The army has not gotten more democratic, in fact just the opposite. Amadou Haya Sanogo, the junior officer who led the March 22 coup that deposed the country’s democratically-elected president, received years of training in the US.

The ‘model of democracy’ that Mali was known to be before the coup crumbled under the weakest of attacks, leading many to question how strong its base was in Malian society. A group of left-leaning Malian politicians and intellectuals released a statement after the coup that basically amounted to a ‘good riddance’ letter to the corrupt Malian political class, while one of the Malian establishment’s most vocal critics, Aminata Traoré, argued that “democracy was a smokescreen for business interests.”

Although the influx of fighters and weapons from Libya sparked the final destruction of the Malian state, “both democracy and the state in Mali were always extremely fragile,” University of Witswatersrand professor and renowned African politics philosopher Achille Mbembe said in an interview.

Gregory Mann, a Mali expert at Columbia University, explained that while “Malian democracy has some kind of grassroots depth… if you want to talk about democracy as elections that are more or less transparent, the strength of institutions and presumably the presence of political parties of some kind, then that kind of democracy I think people in Mali are largely fed up with.”

Mann adds, “it seems like there are a lot of questions that people ought to be asking, not about philandering Secret Service agents in Cartagena, but about what the hell was going on in the Sahel over the last twenty years.”

Flawed Strategy

In Mali, one of the reasons America’s partnership with Touré’s regime ultimately failed to produce positive results in the country is that the aid strategy in general is shortsighted. West African armies, many of which owe their legitimacy to the colonial struggle, are ultimately patronage networks that consider securing the country a task secondary to making money.

There have been very few African wars between states for African armies to fight, and thus armies themselves – rent-collecting groups that thrive because they have consolidated the means of violence in the country – often play major roles in underdevelopment and stagnation. Efforts to keep the military out of politics in Mali, for example, led to its “embourgeoisement” and the neglect of its real purpose, said African politics expert Mbembe. To compound the problem, Western officials tend to overlook corruption and human rights abuses if the governments in question are happy to cooperate with them and say the right things in public.

In Mali’s western neighbor Mauritania, the current President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz seized power from a democratically elected president in a 2008 coup d’état and used the terrorist threat as a justification. A year later, Aziz took off the military uniform, held elections and won them. Since then, “Aziz has presented himself to the West as the Rambo of the Sahara,” according to Mauritanian journalist Abdelkader. “He tries to make the terrorism question a bogeyman to unite Mauritanians around him in the face of growing calls for his military regime to step down,” he added.

Despite Aziz’s lack of democratic credentials, the French and Americans view his regime as the “spearhead” in the fight against AQIM, State Department officials said in a 2010 Wikileaks cable. In Algeria, critics have accused the political and military class that has clung to power since the independence struggle of taking advantage of insecurity in the Sahel to oppress domestic opposition, which mostly comes from moderate Islamist groups.

Most Sahelian armies – including those of key state actors Algeria, Mauritania and Mali, as well as AQIM – are thought to contain elements that profit from the increasingly lucrative drug smuggling business through the Sahara desert, yet the most basic facts about the drug trade are missing. Mali expert Gregory Mann calls the trafficking issue “no pun intended, the million-dollar question.”

Another element that clouds Western diplomatic judgement in the Sahel is the tendency to view things in black and white, while the reality on the ground is much more muddled. “We hold the [junta] directly responsible for the increasing suffering of the Malian people,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on May 11. But this view neglects the foreign nature of the conflict in the north, which provided the spark for the coup: the arms come from Libya, the jihadists from Algeria and Mauritania, and the militarization of the region is led by the US and France.

Regional politics and rivalries between states like Morocco and Algeria and Algeria and Mali are often put on the back burner, despite their central role to the conflict.

The Future of Sahel

The West African regional body ECOWAS, under the tutelage of Alassane Ouattara – the Ivorian president whose ascension to power was made possible by French air strikes – has championed a Western-approved response to the problem in Mali in order to ensure a cosmetic democracy through sanctions and militarization. A president and a prime minister have been set up and they’ve made promises to hold elections, despite the fact that their mandate was only for forty days and that real power still lies with the military junta.

ECOWAS has also decided to send troops to aid the Malian army in its eventual fight against the northern rebels. But this is contingent on two things: a Malian government inviting them, and American and French logistical support, both of which are beyond ECOWAS’ control.

Even if the ECOWAS forces were to eventually make its way to Mali, the general outlook for success in any mission in the unforgiving desert terrain against the Tuareg and Salafi rebels is quite 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 British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan. “It would be ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ without any glory in it at all, they’d just get butchered,” he said.

The void of ECOWAS and African Union solutions has led some African leaders to pine for more Western aid. Benin’s President Thomas Yayi Boni, who currently chairs 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. My wish is that President Hollande can play a leadership role to ensure that problems in Africa can be examined carefully.” Niger’s foreign minister also said on RFI that “the military option is the only option” and implied that the West could support a possible intervention with air strikes.

But if African leaders don’t have the answers, a glance into recent history reveals that neither do the French nor the Americans, and looking to them brings more problems than it solves.


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