As anticipated, the MNLA has seized upon the confusion in Bamako to advance from more rural targets such as Ménaka and Tessalit to those that are more heavily populated and strategically important. In the last two days, Tuareg rebels have seized the northeastern Malian towns of Kidal and Gao, along with their military garrisons, making Timbuktu the only major town that remains under the control of the Malian army within the region the rebels refer to as Azawad. As the military headquarters for northern Mali, the loss of Gao is yet another obstacle for the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) to overcome in order to prove that it, rather than the civilian government of ousted president Amadou Toumani Touré, can find a more effective solution to the Tuareg rebellion. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the threats levied by the 15-member Economic Community of West and Central African States (ECOWAS) to impose sanctions on Mali unless the CNRDR steps aside in favor of civilian rule by Monday.
In addition to the MNLA’s ability to benefit from the state of affairs in the capital, it has also benefitted from a change in fortune as a result of last year’s events in Libya. Unable to trust his own military, the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi believed Tuareg migrants from Mali and Niger to be immune to the tribal politics of Libya’s Arab-Berber tribes. Due to droughts in these countries during the 1970s and 1980s, these Sahelian minorities immigrated to Libya, where Qadhafi used them as fighters in sensitive positions within the Libyan armed forces. In exchange for their loyalty, Qadhafi gave them financial and military assistance which was then used to foment Tuareg insurrections in Mali and Niger in the 1980s and 1990s. In Mali, the Tuareg rebellions had been resolved through negotiated peace, and government promises for decentralization, regional development, and the integration of Tuareg fighters into the national military. However, many Tuaregs have felt betrayed by the government’s inability to deliver on these promises. Armed with machine guns, mortars, antitank and antiaircraft weapons liberated from Qadhafi’s arsenals, the MNLA has presented a threat to Mali’s territorial integrity that previous Tuareg rebellions were unable to pose. In fact, it is largely this massive weapons flow and Touré’s inability to anticipate the magnitude of tactical imbalance between the rebels and the army that explains how Mali ended up in the situation it faces today. At present, there are two factors that could affect this imbalance. The first is the CNRDR’s ability to secure military assistance from states or international organizations alarmed by the MNLA’s recent progress, which appears unlikely, given the condemnations of the coup by key international partners and ECOWAS’ pending ultimatum. The second will be the MNLA’s ability to sustain the supply of arms and ammunition into Azawad. As of yet, the group has no known sources of foreign support – but that may be a small hitch in a region awash with small arms and light weapons.
With the campaign against the MNLA now under the command of the CNRDR, the Malian army is bound to face the same challenges it did under Touré, given its relatively small size (roughly 7,000 soldiers) and the difficulty of mounting and sustaining operations across a broad swath of territory. Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, while imploring the international community for help to halt the Tuareg advance, has simultaneously called for negotiations with the rebels. With increasing uncertainty surrounding Mali’s future security assistance, and the morale of soldiers on the frontlines likely plummeting, it appears that a negotiated peace may be the most expedient way of settling this most recent round of Tuareg discontent. Yet, even this comes with its own set of complications. The MNLA insists that the only basis for negotiations must be self-determination, while granting any concessions that would negatively impact Mali’s territorial integrity would make Sanogo’s position untenable. Moreover, although the MNLA claims to represent the marginalized populations of Azawad, we do not yet have a good understanding of whether or not the MNLA has popular support – either from within the Tuareg community in northeastern Mali or from other ethnic groups in the region, such as the Songhai, Peul, and Moors. As the MNLA continues to seize territory, we may begin to see evidence of cleavages within the rebel movement, and within the region, as it attempts to administer these areas as the Government of Azawad.