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Mali, Africa's Afghanistan?

By Henry D' Souza

Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, February 4, 2013

         Some1 think that Mali is like Somalia.  Both countries are deeply politically divided.  In the case of Somalia, the country has four regions trying to survive as autonomous regions, though one is recognized as fully independent.  Mali is divided between the north and south and the northerners have claimed a separate state, Azawad, from April 6, 2012, which is not internationally recognized.  In both cases, the central government is weak.  Both are in the Sahelian belt which means survival depends on the availability of water and the camel, their manna from Heaven. In both countries the fight for existence leads the people to any economic activity that brings in money: piracy or kidnapping, trade in contraband commodities, and raids.  As the Sahelian environment defines human lives there, the French in 1960 combined Mali with Senegal and called the territory, the Sudanese Republic and Senegal; this western area was more like the eastern, dominated by Sudan. The Republic did not last long since it was artificially created.

         Others think that Mali is more like Afghanistan.  Both are strategically located, so much so that control of one, facilitates the control of neighboring countries.        Both countries have groups that are vehemently independent.  Afghans claimed to have driven out three major Superpowers of their day, Britain, the Soviet Union and the USA.  The Tuaregs in Mali say that they have always ruled the Sahara, and will continue doing so.  They are currently resisting the French “occupation” of Mali, especially northern Mali.

         Mali is coming into prominence as the US and Israel wind down their wars in the Middle East: the war in Iraq is over, American troops might well withdraw completely by 2014, and the US is reluctant to aid the rebels in Syria owing to the fact that al Qaeda fighters seem to be dominating the fight against Assad’s Administration.  As in Libya, al Qaeda might take over another country, Syria, if Assad’s Administration falls.  The US has, in addition, to prepare for its pivot to Asia.  During this transitional period, Mali has become the focus in Northern Africa, and former colonial power France has taken the protector’s role from January 2013. 

         France was invited to stop the northerners from taking over the capital, Bamako.  The northerners are a coalition of four groups, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine. 

AQIM is led by Mokhtar Belmohktar and consisted initially of Algerians who were driven out of Algeria in the 1990s.  Gollom2 seems to think that Belmohktar is al Qaeda’s man in the Sahara.  After being ousted Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali formed his own organization, Ansar Dine, which vowed to unite the country under its leadership.  Ghali seemed to have gained strength by linking with extreme jihadists from abroad.  Ould Baddy leads another unit, MUJAO, which was another off-shoot of AQIM.  With the fall of Qaddafi and the acquisition of his sophisticated arms, these 2000 to 3000 battle-hardened fighters had almost taken Bamako: they had taken Sévaré which has the nation’s second airport, and the southern town of Diabaly.

The Tuaregs too had other reasons for overthrowing the regime in Bamako.  From 1961 to 1964 the military had curbed an insurrection by the Tuaregs in the north and many were made refugees. During the 1968-1974 drought, Bamako gave little help to the north.  Currently, the UN agency for Refugees estimates that there are 150,000 Malian refugees in neighboring countries and 230,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDP).  In January alone there were 30,000 IDFs.3   As second class citizens, the northerners decided that they had either to separate or take over the country.

         The French felt that they had to enter.  The indigenous Tuaregs wanted the French because they seemed to have lost control to the highly accomplished mercenaries from abroad.  Their puritanical Islam was anathema to the Tuaregs.  The West African political organization, ECOWAS, which had plans of its own to enter the fray but did not have the cash and materiel, asked France for help.4    This request was backed by the African Union.

         But there were many opponents of France’s perceived neo-colonialism.  Sukumar5 was one of these critics who wrote:

   “Connect the dots between intervention in a conflict, the ensuing political instability, and the adoption of open door policies in community-driven economies and it is clear who profits most in Africa wars. Vivre la France! Vivre la France!”

El Najjar6 too quoted former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin who opposed the invasion of Mali.  Villepin said, “Invasions and occupations of foreign nations all ultimately lead to resistance, blood-shedding and corruption at home.”  El Najjar was backed by Khalid Amayreh,7 in another article on the subject.

It is inaccurate to blame one side and not the other, as Margolis did.  Margolis8 argued that the “Mali crisis was not driven primarily by religion but by a spreading uprising against a profoundly corrupt, Western-backed oligarchic government and endemic poverty.”  Agreed, the West has interests in building a pro-western zone against the Muslims in the north, but it is the declared aim of al Qaeda and its clones to build a Caliphate stretching from Mauritania and Senegal in West Africa to Baghdad in the Near East in the first instance.  Amayreh9 expresses this call for a Caliphate of 1.8 billion Muslims in his article.  Consequently the war in Mali is about the establishment of a Caliphate by force and its prevention by force.

AQIM may not be organizationally linked to Al Qaeda in the AF-Pak area, but the former certainly draws inspiration from the central body. We also know that Mokhtar Belmokhtar saw service for al Qaeda in Afghanistan before returning to Mali and that Tunisians and Libyans fought in Iraq and Syria.  Belmokhtar and Morsi, unofficially of the orthodox Muslim Brotherhood, also demand separately the release of the imprisoned blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rehman in the US.  The ailing Sheikh was allegedly responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  These official or unofficial associations suggest that the French have a long fight on their hands.

No wonder European governments are reluctant to join France; at best they are willing to offer logistic and intelligence assistance.  Britain sent 17 Globemaster transport planes10 for French troops to be transported to Bamako, and owing to its investments in West Africa has not ruled out troops on the ground.  France and Britain hope to use their past links through “spheres of influence” to boost African troops.

Owing to its financial problems, the US has offered logistical and intelligence assistance.  It might re-fuel French planes in the air.  The US argues that it cannot go to war in Mali because it cannot legally support an illegitimate government, meaning the military rulers.  But if the US wants it could easily find a reason to join France. Such minimal help is termed, “mowing the grass” by the US Special Operations forces under the US Joint Special Operations Command.11 Ironically, the US trained the army that took over the government.

In response to ECOWAS request, the UN offered aid, but it was limited.  The West prompted ECOWAS to submit a plan which they did: the Strategic Concept for the Resolution of the Crises in Mali.  ECOWAS wanted the UN to finance the scheme for the full duration of the war, but the UN refused.  The UN would only commit $410 million for a year to maintain 3,245 troops.  The main contributors would be Nigeria (694 troops), Togo (581), Niger (541), and Senegal (350).12

Given limited aid by its NATO allies, the French used their air power to bomb Mopti, Konna, Donentza, Gao and Lere, and were able to take back Diabaly.  But the war is an asymmetrical one and the northerners are able to melt in the population until they think it is time to strike, just as the Taleban did.   The northerners have many attack options that make the 8000 French citizens and other foreigners in Mali vulnerable.  The attack on In Amenas, Algeria, is a classic example.

         Mohktar Benmohktar’s brigade, the Masked ones or Mulathameen Brigade and its sub-group, Signatories in Blood or Al Muwaqin bi al Dima, were allegedly responsible for the attack on the gas compound and Al-Hayatt base in In Amenas.13   The actual, well-planned attack was led by an Algerian Tahar ben Cheneb, who was also the leader of the Movement of Islamic Youth in the South, and who died on the first day of the raid.14

 The arsenal of the militants included 6 machine guns, 21 rifles, 2 60mm mortars, rockets, 6 60mm missiles with launchers, 2 grenade launchers, 8 rockets, and 10 grenades attached to explosive belts.15    The militants had their 9 cars painted in Algerian Sontrach colors so that they could escape the attention of 250 Algerian soldiers guarding the compound.   Since the insides of the compound and the personnel were known to the militants, the authorities felt that it was an inside job.

         The militants separated the locals, mostly Algerians and Muslim, from foreigners.  Five hundred and seventy locals were freed. So religion was an issue.  Hundred out 132 escapees were foreigners.  The purpose of the raid was probably to negotiate a settlement which might include ransom money, and or a French withdrawal from Mali.

         But the militants did not bank on Algerian zero tolerance.  From past experiences, it appears that the Algerian Government did not trust the militants or foreign troops to quell the raid.  Algerian troops bombed the compound and cars that were trying to evade bombs. Tentative declarations indicate that the militants were multi-national: they came from Egypt, Canada, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Tunisia.16   It is quite possible that some had false passports.  Foreign workers, dead or missing, came from America, Britain, France, Japan, Norway, Philippines and Romania.  The data offered so far is not definitive.

         Given that Mali is an impoverished landlocked country with a per capita income of just $100 per annum, and that it has 400,000 refugees and 600,000 malnourished children, bombing is certainly not the answer to Mali’s problems.  Mali is potentially rich with gold, bauxite, iron ore, tin and copper, so that it needs massive financial assistance to develop its resources.  One beneficial outcome of this “war” is that the West has come to realize that Africa needs to develop economically to resist its enemies.  Imperialism is out of fashion.


North and South Mali showing the occupation of different forces



               Countries in Africa                                                         Al Qaeda Activity in the Sahelian belt



               Villepin                                               Cameron                            Amir Belmokhtar, Mr. Malboro




               Cartoon                                                            Protesters against French intervention in London                


Effect of spending cuts                                                undecipherable peace treaties


                                             Tribes in Mali


Tuaregs in Sahel                                                             manna from Heaven



The gas plant in Algeria that was attacked by gunmen






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