Friday, December 7, 2012

Mali Hatchet Job

In Gao, a young man's fancy turns to Jihad
The Tuaregs are a nomadic Berber people who have roamed the North African Sahara desert for centuries.  At the end of the colonial period in the 1960s, those with local power played a game of independence musical chairs and divided North Africa into separate independent nations from Niger and Mali, across Algeria and Morocco to Libya.  You'll notice there is no Ténéré and no Azawad, which is what the Tuaregs call their homeland in Niger and Mali.  Right from the beginning, the Tuareg people have been fighting for their own independence, each uprising successively crushed by the armed forces of Mali and Niger, ultimately leading to a peace agreement in 2004.

Meanwhile, arbitrary national borders and social and ecological pressures were making a nomadic lifestyle increasingly difficult, and many Tuaregs tried to find arable land to farm.  But without a nation in the interior Sahara farming is an iffy proposition at best, and in the face of tribal bigotry and government oppression many of them found a willing sponsor and employer - Muammar Qaddafi.  Libya's leader paid them and armed them, and they served as his private mercenary army, willing to act across borders and directly against Gaddafi's own people as his whims demanded.  But ultimately Qaddafi was deposed and his Tuareg militias took their money and their weapons and returned to their homelands in northern Mali.  There, they joined the Tuareg rebels already fighting to establish an independent homeland, and in the vast, lightly populated Saharan wilderness they were enough to tip the balance in their people's favor.   The political pressure from losing a fight with separatist rebels led to a coup that toppled the elected government, even if the military later appointed an interim "acting" civilian President.

But even without significant military pressure from the Malian government, the Tuareg hold on the North was destined to be short-lived.  The independent Tuareg governing body, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), despite being a secular nationalist political organization, had partnered with the extreme Muslim fundamentalist organization Ansar Dine in order to raise a sufficiently large and capable rebel army.  Throughout the spring they consolidated their hold on Northern Mali, but the ideological tensions were already causing a major rift in their coalition.  In late June the rebel union shattered, resulting in the battle of Gao.  Ansar Dine joined forces with the local al-Qaeda affiliate, AQIM and an umbrella group calling itself The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and drove the MNLA out of the city.  By June 28th the Islamist groups held Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, essentially controlling all of the Northern half of Mali.

The West African regional nations, along with Europe, reacted with shock and fear.  The west had learned a hard lesson about allowing extreme religious fundamentalists the security and autonomy of their own sovereign nation, and the regional governments feared the strength of the Islamist movement, seeing it as a threat to their own nations independence.  There is a strong and building consensus that a coalition of West African soldiers supported by western financing and logistics should attack Northern Mali and remove the Islamist fighters.  France, as the nation with the strongest colonial-era ties to the West African region is leading the charge, but there is significant consensus from ECOWAS, NATO and the US.

It's a small bit of desert the size of Texas in the middle of nowhere, indeed, over the years Timbuktu has become synonymous with a mysterious and distant place, but it's important because it is a critical harbinger of things to come.  The MOJWA is a bunch of crazed, messianic theocrats of the worst kind, who have already executed hostages, implemented the requirement that women be veiled, the stoning of adulterers and the mutilation of thieves.  They have destroyed ancient historical artifacts out of a violent allegiance to a savage god.  It's probably a very good idea to cripple their movement and deny them a place from which to build on their capabilities.  But make no mistake, this won't end with their removal from Mali - not the Turaegs struggle for a homeland, and not the Islamists desire for iron-fisted Theocratic governance.  From a modern standpoint, a commitment to a fantastic mythology that describes a world we know to be impossible is nonsensical, but when that commitment leads to murder and brutality the world is going to have take action.

But just as when despots slaughter their citizens in order to retain power, it's far beyond time for the world community to form some kind of consensus for action.  As these events arise, they are dealt with on an ad hoc basis, as if every one were something entirely new, and history and experience, however recent, had nothing to teach us.  The fighting will go on - from resource shortages to sectarian disagreements to independence movements to ethnic cleansing.  In recent times, human conflict tends to be smaller and, in pure numbers less bloody, but much more protracted in nature.  Wars start, but they never end, and peace is never the outcome.  Just as we Americans have to come to terms with our own nation's taste for and exposure to endless war, we are entering a phase of human history where there are no longer discrete conflicts, just an endless series of battles in an open-ended global war.  Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Nigeria, Bosnia, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Georgia, Chechnya, Israel...The number of places in which there is no foreseeable end to the fighting and bleeding grows, because once it gets started, the fighting doesn't ever come to an end.


  1. As these events arise, they are dealt with on an ad hoc basis, as if every one were something entirely new, and history and experience, however recent, had nothing to teach us.

    Didn't we 'regime-change' Libya, as we did Iraq, and Iran, and with the usual results?

    Lots of locals dead and maimed, most all worse off thanks to the national infrastructure being destroyed, and the only winners in the game: "Our" multinational oil companies, and of course, the arms merchants.

    The tale of the sorcerer's apprentice seems apt.

  2. Actually, no. Not at all. We invaded Iraq in peacetime and toppled the regime. We supported an ongoing revolution in Libya and saved tens of thousands of civilian lives. Absolutely no comparison - you have to be willing to accept the facts as they exist.

    I assume you're talking about Mossadegh when you reference Iran. I'm not sure there are any lessons left to be learned by an intelligence overreach from sixty years ago. Not that there weren't lessons to be learned, some of them the wrong lessons, but the US and Western intelligence services have internalized their takeaway from that event...

  3. I once entered into a disagreement on one of my DedBlogs, to the effect that I said "war has NEVER made things better."

    It was an extravagant statement, but in that I agree with thunder on the basis. But not every military intervention is a war, and not violent eruption has a peaceful solution. Sometimes you have no choice but to beat a motherfucker down. DEFINING the motherfucker to receive a beatdown is open to interpretation....

  4. It's HARD. The Tuaregs should have a homeland. So should the Kurds. So should the Palestinians. We should re-draw many of these arbitrary borders to provide some kind of nation with actual support from it's population. But there's an established government with a standing army opposed to every new independence movement in the world.

    Hence, war...

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  6. From a modern standpoint, a commitment to a fantastic mythology that describes a world we know to be impossible is nonsensical, but when that commitment leads to murder and brutality the world is going to have take action.

    America's not-at-all-theocratic Air Force should drop some bombs on them. That always helps.