When Mitt Romney referenced Mali during the final Presidential debate, some people were shocked he even knew the unfamiliar West African country. It's even more surprising that he would even be aware of its geopolitical significance. Romney alluded to rogue “Al-Qaida type individuals” rushing into the northern Sahel region, threatening to turn Mali into the new Afghanistan. Hearing him tell it, you would think Mali is just another haven for terrorists that's preparing to take on America. Since the debate, hyperbolic media reports about the conflict have shrouded the ground level reality of northern Mali. The country has been depicited as a terrorist Wild West or the land where Bin Laden's human sequel will rise. Truthfully though, the situation in Mali is a regional struggle in progress, with potential humanitarian fallout that could rival the likes of Somalia or Sudan.
First off, northern rebel groups are fragmented at best, and at least in the short term, don’t seem to have the capability for global jihad. Underlying tensions in the Malian Sahel have been fomenting for years without the help of Al-Qaida. The Tuareg, a nomadic people that are known for caravanning goods across the desert, felt increasingly marginalised in a southern dominated Malian government. After failed rebellion attempts in 1990 and 2007, it wasn’t until Colonel Gaddafi armed Tuareg mercenaries during the Libyan civil war that they cohesively militarised. Like some posthumous gift from Muammar himself, they returned in January battle-hardened, ready to roll with new heavy weaponry, forming a liberation movement: the Mouvement National Pour la Libération de l’Azawad (the MNLA or as they’re called in Mali, the Azawad). The MNLA completely surprised government forces with more sophisticated tactics and firepower.
Along with another Tuareg-dominated group of Islamists called Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), the MNLA launched a sequence of successful offensives against the Malian government that pushed them out of the north. While the secularist MNLA were fighting for independence, Ansar Dine wanted to impose sharia law over a United Mali and have already done so in some conquered territories. Since, an influx of foreign Jihadi fighters have joined Ansar Dine from multiple affiliations and have recently entered Mali, attempting to hijack the rebellion from the MNLA by doing what extremists do best: recruiting child soldiers and publicly stoning fornicators. Among them are Mujao (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a largely nationalist Islamist network that were chased out of Algeria by Algerian state security forces. Both groups see northern Mali as a base for their operations and have violently fought the MNLA in Gao and other cities.
To make matters worse, the southern Malian government in Bamako isn’t exactly a portrait of stability. Back in March, a military coup d’états sent the country into disarray. Constitutional rule hasn’t returned since. Ironically, the overthrow stemmed from dissent within the military, as some officers considered the Malian government’s mishandling of the northern conflict as a reason to install a military junta, headed by Amadou Sanogo. “Power in Bamako is still virtually determined by the barrel of a gun,” says Thomas Dempsey a retired US Army Colonel and Professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a regional research center affiliated with the Department of Defense. “There’s an uneasy truce with several different political groups jockeying for power. It’s not clear to me that any one of those factions commands the loyalty of the security services. The Malian army has basically disintegrated and separated into narrow factions following their own loyalties.” In a Malian war, multiple factions will likely emerge making it difficult for western forces to identify legitimate allies. And as we all know, it’s a dangerous game considering America’s sterling track record of funding unknown rebel groups.
According to Dempsey the situation in Mali isn’t as easily explained as a war between north and south either, or simply a new frontier for the War on Terror, it’s rather the consequences of a failed state brought on by what he calls a, “perfect storm of not necessarily directly related issues.” Beyond the current military standoff, there’s also the influence of the underreported drug trade (Colombian drug lords allegedly pay AQIM to smuggle coke across the Sahel).
“What’s unsettling about northern Mali is the potential for a confluence of violent extremists like Al-Qaida and the AQIM, and the vast amounts of drug money flowing into this region as a consequence of the drug trade,” he explained. “That trade is supplying an endless amount of illicit money and further complicating the situation.”
Since caravanning salt and other goods on camelback isn’t feasible in the modern world, certain Tuareg groups were forced into trafficking guns and contraband for criminal syndicates to survive, and more recently, cocaine coming from South America. Not to mention, as Dempsey also told us from his perspective, the drug trade permeates the highest levels of Malian politics and corrupts virtually every group in the country, both rebel and governmental.
As if the situation wasn’t any more desperate, people in the Sahel have been living beyond the physical limitations of their region. “Over the past several decades, population pressures, desertification, overuse of water supplies, over cultivation, has all put that ecosystem under unsustainable pressure. It’s deteriorating very quickly and reaching a point where it no longer adequately supports the population, so the population is struggling to control what vital natural resources like water do exist,” Dempsey added.
The immediate issue in Mali isn’t terrorist training camps or bases. As a Stratfor official told US News, Mali developing an organised terrorist infrastructure is unlikely. The country is flat, quickly surveyed and easy to obliterate with a swarm of drones. If Mali descends into conflict, what you may see is the potential growth of ungoverned spaces for transnational crime. That means rebels and fragmented militias ferrying drugs and warring uninhibitedly, destabilising a fragile West African region that’s already saturated with AK-47s and bad blood. Places like Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and to some extent western Chad, could feel the spillover of violence and refugees. It’s actually already started.
As it stands right now, Hillary Clinton visited Algeria’s President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to lobby his military support for an assault across his border. It’s no secret that American officials are looking to gain a handle on the region, especially since the attacks in Benghazi implicated AQIM. There’s also a plan by ECOWAS to send over 3,200 troops to Mali to match the 3,000 Malian soldiers, in any potential armed campaign, which would likely involve training by French Special Forces. While western officials fear Malian based terrorism, they may want to intervene before Mali becomes another Sudan, not Afghanistan. Or in other words, another disregarded African conflict they’ve allowed to turn into a human tragedy.
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