(Originally published in World Politics Review on April 5, 2012)
Over the weekend, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seized Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the three major cities of northern Mali that lie within the region the Tuareg rebel group refers to as “Azawad.” This development highlights the inability of the military-led junta currently ruling the country, the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR), to stem the MNLA’s advance, despite having deposed Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré for his anemic response to this latest round of Tuareg rebellion. Before his overthrow, Touré had also come under fire from regional and international critics for his inability to definitively address the presence in Mali of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has been increasingly active in the northern part of the country since 2007. With Mali’s territorial integrity under threat, the military in disarray and the CNRDR increasingly subject to significant diplomatic and economic pressures, there are concerns that AQIM may benefit from the mayhem reigning in the country.
AQIM is a descendant of jihadi terrorist groups that sought to replace the Algerian government with an Islamic state during the 1991-2002 Algerian civil war. Due to the effective targeting of these groups by the Algerian security forces, AQIM was largely pushed out of the country, but it found safe havens in northern Mali near the Algerian border and in the Wagadou forest near the border with Mauritania. …
(You can find the rest on http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com or at http://www.cna.org)
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.
Last week in Mali, mid-level military officers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo declared themselves the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) and deposed democratically-elected president Amadou Toumani Touré in a bloodless coup. Known as the “soldier of democracy” Touré had himself launched a coup in 1991 against the military regime of General Moussa Traoré. Touré, then stepped aside the following year, allowing elections to usher in two decades of multiparty democracy. Having retired from the military, Touré was elected president in 2002, and was due to step down next month at the end of his second term. Presidential elections scheduled for April 29 would have marked the third successful transition of power from one democratically elected Malian president to his successor, and the further consolidation of the country’s democracy. Yet the spillover from the fall of the Qadhafi regime in Libya gave elements of the armed forces a pretext to oust Touré from power.
Battle-hardened and heavily armed Tuaregs who had fought in the military of the late Muammar al-Qadhafi began to return to their countries of origin – Mali and Niger – in the summer and fall of 2011. For those well-versed in the conflict dynamics of the Sahel, it was only a matter of time before the impact of this Tuareg exodus would be felt in the region. In January 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) began to launch attacks in Azawad, a region encompassing the administrative regions of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. Despite having fought two previous Tuareg rebellions (1962-1964 and 1990-1995) since independence, the Malian armed forces were caught off balance. In just over two months, the MNLA seized several northern towns and killed an undisclosed number of Malian soldiers, leading to the perception among lower ranking officers that Mali’s civilian government has mishandled its response to the conflict.
Touré has not been seen in public since last week’s coup, and much remains uncertain about the CNRDR’s seizure of power. However, there are three takeaways that are immediately apparent:
- The coup appears more opportunistic than it does rational. By seizing power a little over a month before scheduled elections, the military junta has precluded an alternative civilian approach to fighting the conflict in the north.
- As there have been no expressions of support from the upper echelons of the Malian armed forces, the coup may be a setback in terms of the military’s cohesion and effectiveness at dealing with the Tuareg rebellion. This may allow the MNLA to capitalize on the current state of affairs, and could similarly create a security vacuum for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to exploit.
- The rationale for the coup is in direct contradiction to the CNRDR’s stated objective to defeat the Tuareg insurgency and restore constitutional order. Due to the CNRDR’s unconstitutional actions, several countries and international organizations have suspended assistance to the Malian government until civilian rule is restored. Yesterday afternoon, the U.S. State Department suspended non-humanitarian assistance to Mali pending a resolution of events on the ground. According to Section 7008 of the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, the U.S. government restricts security assistance to the “government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” Under this determination, it appears that Mali is now subject to Section 7008, making it illegal for the U.S. government to continue the International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) that Mali received, as well as Mali’s participation in the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP). Ironically, although the CNRDR claims to lack adequate arms and supplies to confront Tuareg rebels, they have disqualified Mali from receiving security assistance from the United States and other key partners – without which it may actually be more difficult to reverse the momentum of the MNLA. This is significant, because it means that Mali’s return to civilian rule may be prolonged, which prompts the question of how long the CNRDR will be able to stay in power before it must resort to the use of force in order to quell civilian discontent.