BACK FROM THE BRINK: A PRIMER ON MALI
By John Ford
This is the sixth in a series of guest posts by John Ford. John is a graduate of Chapman University School of Law and is a reserve officer in the US Army. He will be writing short profiles of 8 countries that are of great importance to US foreign policy but receive little attention in the media: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, The Congo, Nigeria, Mali, Myanmar, and Singapore. The purpose is to give readers a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities these countries present and how they relate to American global strategy. You can follow John on Twitter at @johndouglasford.
The name Mali is taken from one of the great trading empires that once dominated West Africa. The Empire of Mali was a powerful and wealthy kingdom that occupied lands stretching from the Gambia River on the west coast of Africa into the interior of the continent, following the path of the Niger River into what is today Mauritania and Mali. Mali reached the height of its power from the 13th to the 15th century – in European terms the late Middle Ages to the Italian Renaissance. It became perhaps the wealthiest state in the world at the time, having grown rich from the highly profitable caravan trade that crisscrossed the Sahel and from the fact that Mali produced half of the world’s gold and salt. Its most famous king was Mansa Musa, who was so wealthy that when he visited Egypt on his Hajj journey he spent enough money that he single-handedly triggered an unprecedented run of inflation in Cairo.
The days of the Mali Empire’s massive wealth are a far cry from the modern country of Mali where the average person lives on about $2 a day. The caravan trade is largely gone because modern shipping is so much cheaper than moving goods overland. Mali is a major gold miner but now produces about 2% of the world’s gold rather than the 50% it did in Mansa Musa’s era.
Mali’s economic woes are severe but what has put the country in the news of late is the Tuareg insurgency that brought the country to the brink of collapse.
The Tuareg are a nomadic people who occupy the interior of the Sahara Desert. They stretch from Algeria to Niger to Libya. About 10% of the people of Mali are Tuareg but nearly all of sparsely populated northern Mali is majority Tuareg. Because they are nomadic pastoralists, they follow the oases and ignore national borders.
The Tuareg are notoriously violent. When Europeans began to explore West Africa, the Tuareg posed one of the major obstacles. The Tuareg would stalk European expeditions and then raid them for their goods. Tuareg raiders were, after the desert itself, the deadliest foe Europeans faced. The lands the Tuareg lived on were eventually claimed by France but were never really subdued.
Since independence, Mali has faced nearly constant rebellions by Tuareg secessionists. The current rebellion is the fourth since 1962. Tuareg militants had long ties to the government of Muhammar Qaddafi, who maintained relationships with all manner of African rebel groups. Qaddafi wanted to build ties with militants from outside Libya so he could call on these fighters as mercenaries to defend his regime if he ever faced a rebellion. In 2011, he called in his chits. He flew in thousands of Tuareg mercenaries to fight the uprising that eventually toppled his regime. After the war in Libya, Tuareg fighters returned to Mali with arms looted from Qadaffi’s arsenal.
With these weapons in hand a group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) was formed. Their stated purpose was to create an independent Tuareg homeland by driving Malian security forces out of the north of the country and seceding from Mali.
But the MNLA was not the only Tuareg group fighting against the government. An Islamic fundamentalist group aligned with Al Qaeda that called itself Ansar Dine was also waging war against the government. The MNLA and Ansar Dine joined together in an alliance against the government despite the fact that Ansar Dine was a fundamentalist group and the MNLA was a secular nationalist movement.
The momentum in the war turned in the spring of 2012. The President of Mali, Amadou Toure, was overthrown in a military coup. Toure was something of a national hero in Mali for helping bring democracy to the country in 1991. Mali was then governed by a military dictator named Moussa Traore. When a protest movement demanding free elections began to spread across the country it was Amadou Toure, then a senior Army officer in charge of security for the dictator, who arrested then-President Traore and protected the protestors. For the next 20 years Mali was considered something of a model democracy. Toure himself was elected President in 2002. Toure was a strong ally of the US in the War on Terrorism and was invited by President Bush to visit the White House. His country received substantial aid from the US to support its young democracy and to finance its efforts to eliminate al Qaeda operatives in the Maghreb.
Many in the military, however, soured on Toure as time went by. As the Tuareg insurgency in the north grew and captured more towns Toure was seen as feckless and impotent by his own army. In March of 2012, a group of junior officers took matters into their own hands and overthrew Toure.
If the purpose of the coup plotters was to end the insurgency, their decision seriously backfired. The coup threw the entire government into disarray and the Tuareg insurgents advanced even more rapidly than before. They took Timbuktu in April and declared their independent state of Azawad. The United States, France, and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) all froze aid to Mali’s government because of the coup and threatened trade sanctions if democracy was not restored.
The collapse of Malian democracy and the secession of Azawad was enough of a mess in its own right, but the specter of Azawad becoming a base for terrorist attacks soon became the main concern of the western powers. Ansar Dine had begun imposing Sharia law in the northern cities, banning music, television, and smoking. Public stoning for adultery began and thieves had their hands cut off. Ansar Dine fighters began destroying Sufi shrines on the grounds that Sufis were insufficiently Islamic. This kind of radicalism caused tension between Ansar Dine and the MNLA. The MNLA broke off their alliance with Ansar Dine but soon found Ansar had become the more powerful faction in the insurgency. By June of 2012, the MNLA had something in common with government forces: They had both been expelled from northern Mali by Ansar Dine.
Ansar Dine, an open ally of Al Qaeda, was now in control of a swath of desert the size of Poland. It was the French, of all countries, who finally put a stop to this madness. France had once ruled Mali as a colony and its relationship with Mali’s post-colonial government was not always smooth. But the people of Mali overwhelmingly supported the French military intervention to defeat Ansar Dine and restore democracy to the country.
A small force of only 4,000 French troops deployed to Mali in January of 2013. They deployed in support of a renewed government offensive against Ansar Dine. Even the MNLA backed the French intervention, though they were not a serious militia by this point and could do little other than issue supportive press releases. The French offensive knocked Ansar Dine back on its heels. The French and Malian armies drove the rebels out of all the major cities and, having done this, chased them deep into the harsh Sahara desert. The most difficult part of fighting in the Sahara has always been logistics. Tuareg lands are deep inside the continent meaning an invader’s supply lines grow long. Because of the harsh climate it is hard to have enough drinking water to sustain an army. But the French had substantial logistical support from the US. It was able to conquer the logistical challenge and having conquered this, could defeat Ansar Dine.
In July of this year Mali held a democratic election to choose a new President. The military junta that overthrew President Toure is gone. Ansar Dine is on the run and there will be no al Qaeda safe haven in Mali any time soon. A peace deal was signed over the summer between the MNLA and the Malian government. Under pressure from the French the MNLA dropped their demand for independence and agreed to accept a limited form of autonomy for northern Mali.
The mission in Mali is not over but the French intervention has been a massive success so far. Now, the French have to hand over responsibility for peacekeeping to an African Union force. The west has to remain diplomatically engaged so they can help Mali’s new government rebuild the institutions that were damaged by the 2012 coup d’etat. But for now Mali is a success story. Nine months ago an al Qaeda ally was on the march in West Africa. Now, they are on the run. With terrorists gaining ground in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia, the US about to leave Afghanistan with the Taliban still alive and fighting, and Egypt in flames, the fact is that Mali is one of the few places on Earth the west can say it has had a recent victory against radical Jihadists. To sustain that victory and build on it Mali needs a government strong enough to secure its territory without the help of foreign peacekeepers and needs to maintain its political agreement with its Tuareg minority.