As it was predicted by some analysts, Mali is in danger of being engulfed in a prolonged struggle against the Islamic fundamentalist militants. Just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, the Al-Qaeda linked militants in Mali melted away in the face of stronger military forces so that they could return later. We have seen how the Taliban returned even stronger and even spread to regions which had not seen their armed activity before 2001, especially in neighboring Pakistan.
Malian conflict has also spread to several of its neighbors in different ways. Some of them sent their troops to participate in the French led operation against the Islamic militants. One of these nations, Chad, lost thirteen of her army in fierce fighting against the militants near the Mali-Algeria border in the rugged Ifoghas Mountains last week. The Ifoghas, or the Adrar des Iforars, near the Algerian border has become a refuge for the retreating militants. Several cities have also seen increased rebel activity.
Although Mali is governed by a civilian regime, the puppet masters behind the Bamako government are believed to be the young military officers who seized power last year. Despite this, Malian army is too small and not adequately trained in counterinsurgency to tackle a coherent and effective campaign against a sophisticated insurgency. The French led operation against the militants was launched when the rebel forces were threatening the very existence of the Bamako government. Until then the French were reluctant to send troops in despite much of the land area in Mali being under the control of Islamic militants.
However, given the current state of the economy, neither France nor any other Western power is willing to be bogged down in another military campaign. Therefore, ways out of the predicament in Mali must be sought immediately to reduce the likelihood of a prolonged insurgency.
The crucial factor to be kept in mind is that the Islamic militants hijacked an entirely different movement in Mali. If the two movements are confused, it will create additional and unwanted problems. The initial upsurge of the current conflict in Mali was the result of long-standing grievances of the Tuareg people in the region. The Tuaregs inhabit a sparsely populated area in the Sahara straddling countries such as Niger, Mali, Algeria and Libya. In Mali, there are around a half a million Tuaregs. They demand greater autonomy and have rebelled several times during the history of independent Mali.
Military training beforehand
The most recent uprising which started in early 2012 turned out to be the most threatening so far. The reason was the nature of the people who made up the rebel armies and the weapons they used. During the Libyan Civil War, some Tuaregs fought for the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. After his downfall and death, the Tuaregs returned home with valuable battle experience. Also, there was a large influx of sophisticated weapons into Mali. Disillusionment was rampant among Tuaregs who had been incorporated to the Malian military after the settlement of an earlier uprising. Therefore, the Tuareg rebels, who led this campaign, had at least some military training beforehand. It was a readymade force to be utilized.
The weak armed forces of Mali were no match for Tuareg rebel force, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). However, the Tuareg rebellion was not directed at toppling the Malian regime but ‘liberating’ their homeland, ‘State of Azawad.’ After ‘liberating’ this area, which is more than half the land area of Mali, the rebels of the MNLA called off their offensive.
In the meantime, as an unintended consequence of the rebellion, the civilian government of Amadou Toumani Toure was toppled by some junior military officers. The reason put forward to justify the coup was that the civilian regime was doing nothing to stop the rebellion which was threatening large areas of the country. However, the military regime was also unable to prevent the MNLA from ‘liberating’ Azawad.
It was a few weeks after the ‘liberation’ of Azawad that a new and more sinister element came to prominence in the deserts of Mali. Islamic militants of a group called Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) had helped the MNLA during their offensive. Now that it was over, they and some other Islamic groups wanted the imposition of Sharia Law in the Azawad. One such group was the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a splinter group of the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The MNLA and the Islamic groups clashed and the latter gradually took over the area in Azawad town by town, city by city, from the former. The MNLA was no match for the zealous and well armed Islamic militants. For a few months, the Malians living in much of ‘Azawad’ had a taste of what an Islamic fundamentalist state would entail.
The Islamic militants terrorized the people into subjugation in many areas they captured. As the Tuaregs have a different culture than what is espoused by the fundamentalists, the people did not support them to a significant degree. Suffice it to say that the Tuareg women enjoy a higher status than in almost any Islamic society. While the women do not wear the veil, the men do.
This cultural difference opens the path to an effective and long-lasting counterinsurgency against Islamic militancy. If the Tuareg people’s longtime grievances are heard, the militants will not be able to attract significant support in the region.
However, the region the Tuaregs claim as their homeland is also home to many other groups of peoples. Therefore, a balance of interests among all the peoples in the region should be the real aim of any Malian government. If not, Mali and her allies should prepare to face a prolonged crisis involving many actors.