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Mali crisis precipitated by civil war in Libya engenders U.S.-Africa strategy

The Islamists are on the march; they feel their time has arrived. Islamism is perceived as a more attractive source of spiritual inspiration and a more effective tool of mass mobilization than old-fashioned nationalism.

Northwest Africa’s landlocked country of Mali has now replaced Somalia as the continent’s prime failed state. The Pentagon has been tasked with coordinating action there, but it is rather reluctant to proceed. Naturally, it will be up to President Barack Obama to decide. And he promised already before the 2008 election to be heavily involved in Africa. He should, first, state our strategic goals, second, know who our allies are, and, third, understand the forces at play.

As in Somalia, similar factors are at work destabilizing Mali: transnational (Islamist terrorism) and local (domestic rebels). The northern part of this former French dependency is essentially in the hands of the various actors associated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an offshoot of the nefarious Bin Laden outfit. Thus, there have been calls for an armed intervention in Mali, an overwhelmingly Muslim country, which is sandwiched, clockwise from the northwest by Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, and Mauritania. American leadership is indispensable to stabilize Mali. However, the United States should, first, realize what it is getting into and, second, work closely with France on the crisis resolution, encouraging and supporting the indigenous Malian and African Union diplomatic and military efforts, while eschewing direct combat involvement in this flatland agricultural/desert nation almost twice the size of Texas.


Mali’s troubles have a long pedigree.  And they can be somewhat neatly delineated along the southern rim of the Sahara, the home of the minority nomadic Tuareg people, who rebel periodically against the southern agricultural, largely Bambara-speaking Mandé majority.  Now an economic basket case crippled by aid dependency syndrome like much of the rest of Africa, Mali was once a continental powerhouse. It constituted at different times a part of three regional “empires,” Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. This thriving medieval realm’s 14th-century ruler Mansa Musa is considered now to have been the world’s wealthiest man ever. It is said that the king’s munificence alone caused inflation in Egypt. The key was his realm’s control of gold mining and trans-Saharan trade. Mali’s major cities of Djenné and Timbuktu became leading centers of commerce and learning. Prosperity and power proved fleeting. A combination of civil war and foreign invasion dissipated Mansa Musa’s legacy, and Mali reverted to obscurity.

In the second half of the 19th century, France incorporated the realm into its French Sudan, according to Thomas Pakenham’s vivid and magisterial Scramble for Africa. In the mid-20th century, Mali claimed its independence, initially in a federation with Senegal, and then as a stand-alone republic. At first a parliamentary democracy, it soon degenerated into a socialist one-party state after 1960. The economy collapsed, and the jails filled up with the dissidents. Before the decade was over, the civilian dictatorship was overthrown by the military. Army rule proved increasingly repressive as it was challenged by several Tuareg rebellions, student demonstrations, three attempted putsches, and broad social unrest stemming from years of famine in the 1970s. Until the early 1990s, Mali slouched along as a full-fledged police state. All independent political activity was banned. Tens of thousands fled repression, the Tuareg in particular, as described incisively by Martin Meredith in The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence.

Following the implosion of the USSR, in March 1991, a peaceful protest in the nation’s capital of Bamako turned violent, but a military coup brought political pluralism of sorts. Afterward, during the next 20 years, democratic presidential elections were held four times perhaps with a decreasing degree of fairness. A succession of weak civilian administrations with strong army and police ties presided over the country, which nonetheless was touted as a paradigm of economic growth, democracy, and stability. By regional standards, perhaps it was. However, by the end of the 2000s, the nation was becoming seriously destabilized.

The Tuaregs and Others: Nationalists and Islamists

Already in 1990, the Tuareg began infiltrating back from abroad and setting themselves up autonomously in northern Mali, which the locals dub as the Azawad. The Tuareg nationalists launched an armed rebellion once again. The Bamako government thought it had negotiated an end to the insurgency, but, in reality, the parties achieved only an uneasy truce in 1995. The Tuaregs continued to complain bitterly about discrimination in the Malian armed forces and the underdevelopment of their areas. Another uprising broke out between 2007 and 2009, and again in 2012, still under the old nationalist leadership but under the umbrella of a newly established National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The Tuaregs dominate the group, which purports to speak for all the inhabitants of northern Mali, including the Fula, Arab, and Songhai peoples. The movement also welcomes the assistance of its kin Tuaregs from Niger and elsewhere.

In April 2012, the MNLA proclaimed the secession from Mali, presumably a “secular” military national socialist state, which, however, was immediately disavowed by the local Islamists. A month later, therefore, the MNLA compromised with its jihadist allies and both jointly unveiled the Islamic Republic of Azawad. The ominous name reflects the Muslim extremist influence in northern Mali. The indigenous Islamists have waxed in strength since the late 1990s. Inspired by and reinforced by Algeria’s failed Muslim revolutionaries, who fled south into the Sahara, they joined forces with the AQIM. The Islamist alliance is admittedly very loose. The participants share a common Weltanschauung or comprehensive worldview driven by singular fanaticism. They aim to submit the territory they carve out to a strict rule of sharia, Islamic law. Otherwise, they tend to disagree about the reach of the realm, and they vary in their tactics and composition.

Two major Islamist groups operate in the Azawad.  Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) emerged chiefly from among the Tuareg nationalists in 2012. They fought together against the Malians in the rebellion of 1990-1995. However, some of them exchanged nationalism for Islamism, a process somewhat similar to that of the popularity contest between Palestine’s Fatah and Hamas. Ansar Dine explicitly stresses the fundamentalist Muslim message but largely limits its ambitions to a mini-kalifate in northern Mali. In essence, it has stolen the thunder of the nationalists by advocating a Sharia-ruled Azawad. Buoyed by their success, some Ansar Dine leaders now have set their sights on making the whole of Mali a theocracy. Aside from Islamism, the Tuareg-centered religious extremist group’s ties to the AQIM are chiefly based upon family and clan connections to their radical counterparts in Algeria. That resembles the transborder dynamics in southwestern Sudan, where some of the important Darfurian actors maintain links to their kith and kin in Chad, as Gerard Prunier has astutely pointed out in his Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide.

The other Islamist outfit operating in northern Mali is the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). It split from the AQIM over the scope and tactics of operation as well as sources of inspiration. Apparently, the latter has become too focused on bin Laden and Algeria. The MOJWA fighters defer more to 18th– and 19th-century West African jihadists like Shaihu Usman dan Fodio and El Hajj Umar Tall. Further, there may be ethnic and racial divisions at work. The AQIM became an overwhelmingly Arab enterprise after it lost the goodwill of the Berbers, who turned violently against the Islamist group in reaction to the kidnappings it perpetrated as a means of sustenance. MOJWA appears much more diverse with Blacks, Arabs, Tuaregs, and others, while the leadership seems to be chiefly Sub-Saharan African. It prefers Hausa, French, and English, over Arabic for everything but, of course, prayer. And it harbors transnational ambitions. Its activists not only meddle in Algeria but have also penetrated as far south as Nigeria, reportedly establishing a liaison with the Boko Haram (Western Education is a Sin) extremist group there. MOJWA maintains ideological and terrorist training camps for the Islamists in northern Mali. They train recruits from both the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa, including Algeria, Nigeria, Niger, and Mauritania.

Thus, the Islamist structure in northern Mali consists of several layers of Muslim extremism. First, there exists the original Al-Qaeda that serves largely as a mythical ideal, mostly on the spiritual plane, although haphazard and indirect contacts between the local Islamists and the motherboard must not be excluded. Second, there is the AQIM operating as a specific, narrowly Algeria-focused outfit, on the one hand, and as an umbrella organization spawning the MOJWA and influencing Ansar Dine, on the other. The Islamists are on the march; they feel their time has arrived. Islamism is perceived as a more attractive source of spiritual inspiration and a more effective tool of mass mobilization than old-fashioned nationalism.

Since there is no equivalent of the Taliban running Mali to conclude a deal with, the Islamists and secessionists count on persistent chaos and government weakness in Bamako so they could carry out their radical projects undisturbed. However, the Islamists and the Tuareg nationalists vie for the same area and population. More often than not, they are at the loggerheads; their cooperation is tactical and temporary. Ansar Dine would like to outdo the MNLA in Tuareg glory and the MOJWA in piety. The MOJWA patronizes Ansar Dine as parochial. And it considers the MNLA outright impious – haram (recalling the attitude of the very same Islamists toward Western Sahara’s nationalist Polisario Front). Further, certain local groups tend to oscillate between alliance and opposition toward the big players. For example, the tiny Arab-controlled National Liberation Front of Azawad (FLNA) has challenged the MNLA around Timbuktu. Yet, all northern Malian actors arguably regard the Bamako regime as the greatest threat because it has a legitimate claim on the territory they covet and because it is backed by the West and non-Islamist African nations in the endeavor to recover it.

The Libyan Trigger: The Insurrection and the Coup

The latest crisis in Mali was precipitated by the civil war in Libya. As late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was imploding, his mercenaries, many of them Tuareg, streamed southwest, carrying off with them loot, including heavy weapons and munitions. They were joined by other Tuareg guns for hire who had fought for the Libyan rebels but who likewise absconded with military gear and armaments. They were further reinforced with Tuareg deserters from the Bamako army. Thus equipped, the Tuareg nationalists launched yet another offensive in January 2012. Mali’s regular armed forces were outmatched.

Initially, the MNLA allied itself with Ansar Dine. Both easily routed the poorly led and armed government troops despite at least one American effort to airdrop supplies to the besieged Malian garrisons. Whereas MNLA was happy to score victories, its Islamist ally capitalized on them. Flying the trademark black flags with white Koranic suras, Ansar Dine immediately set up its administration in captured localities. That usually consisted of establishing Sharia courts. The Malian army withdrew away from the Sahara with the rebels in hot pursuit. A few atrocities took place during the retreat. One, in particular, the massacre of several platoons of Malians at Aguel Hoc in the borderlands abutting Niger, triggered military riots and, ultimately, a coup d’état by army NCOs in Bamako in March 2012. Enraged by the ineptness of the government in handling the northern rebellion, the rank-and-file deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré, a former general, and forced him into exile in Senegal.

A thuggish junta under Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo took over. It failed to assert itself not only in the north but in much of the rest of the country as well, except for the capital. Hemmed in by international pressure, harsh economic sanctions in particular, the military has ostensibly permitted the return to civilian rule. Soviet-trained Dioncounda Traoré assumed interim presidency in April 2012. However, Sanogo’s supporters physically assaulted the president a month later, beating him severely. He was hospitalized in France but returned home in July. Although the President was able to appoint a prime minister and a government, the Captain menacingly stands by and barely tolerates the civilians, expecting them to deliver international relief, including a military intervention against the northern rebels, and restore the state.

Meanwhile, the situation in the north has changed dramatically. Following their victory over government troops, the Islamists turned against their erstwhile Tuareg nationalist allies and routed them. By July 2012, Ansar Dine and the MOJWA controlled all major towns and much of the desert wasteland. The MNLA was put on a deep defensive, and it still has not recovered.

Of the current winners, it is unclear who has the upper hand. The relationship between the two Islamist groups is hard to gauge. On the one hand, there are competition and personality clashes. On the other hand, there is a consensus about the desirability to maintain a state of one’s own: The Islamic Republic of Azawad. For the MOJWA, it is a purely tactical issue; Ansar Dine treats it more as a strategic objective – in a way, though, for both consider the Azawad as a plan minimum. The latter has its eyes on Mali; the former on the whole of West Africa.

Meanwhile, in the Azawad, the Islamists have spread their charming ambiance everywhere. Once the Sharia was instituted, the local Christians immediately fled. Women are fully veiled, and Muslims considered insufficiently fanatical are punished, as evidenced by the destruction of a Sufi holy man’s grave in Timbuktu.  Public executions are the norm. Thieves have their extremities amputated. Western frivolities are banned and destroyed, including video games, music, and cigarettes. It is Taliban redux, albeit in the desert.

Multilateralism American-style

The reaction of the so-called international community has been very hostile both to the coup d’état in Mali and, especially, to the Islamist takeover in the Azawad. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) not only has browbeaten the junta in Bamako through punishing sanctions and diplomatic negotiations, but it also leads the clamor for an international armed invasion of the north. Even the United Nations and the African Union have called for a military intervention. They want democracy restored and the rebellion crushed.

Much of it reflects the international consensus in the wake of America’s victory in the Cold War. Democracy is still the preferred system of government. It should be fostered and preserved, wherever possible. So long as the United States is the only hyperpower, everyone at least pays lip service to democracy. France agrees essentially, in particular in the case of Mali. Paris considers its old colonies as its sphere of influence. And France happens to be a parliamentary democracy. Thus, American Wilsonian idealism and French raison d’état tally neatly in this instance.

Both partners have worked well together, outside of Foggy Bottom and Quai d’Orsay. Military and intelligence cooperation has been practically exemplary during and after the Cold War, currently in Afghanistan, for instance. In north and western Africa, it was French intelligence, using its leverage in Chad, which saved the CIA-backed émigré Libyan Legion in Chad from the wrath of Gaddafi in the mid-1980s. After 9/11, joint Franco-American covert operations in Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa restored stability and, in a couple of cases, prevented an Islamist ascendancy and, most likely, genocide.

The impending intervention in Mali calls for an integrated strategy and diversification of tasks. The diplomatic, political, and logistical support should be Western. The heavy lifting should be done by the Africans, however. Thus, if the U.S. assists indirectly with funds, supplies, intelligence, and, perhaps, airpower, the French should play a direct role as advisors in covert and special operations on the ground. The key is, however, to keep the Africans engaged, overwhelmingly. Thankfully, they have been and need no prodding.

This is a part of a larger trend. The African Union has been rather eager to self-police the continent. Of course, the West tends to foot the bill. But a direct combat involvement by native African troops against native African Islamists eliminates the stigma of racism or the legacy of colonialism. It is in the interest of the Africans themselves to keep the continent stable and to maintain at least a semblance of democracy there. And African troops have proven themselves rather capable of intervention, if with different results. Congo remains a never-ending disaster. Somalia has returned to normalcy mostly thanks to Kenyan and Ethiopian troops. Aside from earning them money and providing combat training, foreign intervention keeps the African militaries busy and away from civilian affairs at home.

The objective is to remove the Islamists and to stabilize Mali. A military campaign will take care of the first. But the second objective will be tougher to accomplish. No settlement will be durable without the Tuareg. The window on a deal is closing fast, however, as the nationalist rank-and-file is fast seduced by the Islamists. By incorporating the MLNA into the regular Malian armed forces, the Azawad should be recaptured fast with other African and Western backing. But what next? Tribal solidarity should be deployed to wean Ansar Dine from the MOJWA. And then perhaps cantonization of Mali along the Sahara line would be a good solution, which would give the Tuareg de facto autonomy.

Another option is to partition Mali and set up a Tuareg state as a buffer against the Islamists. However, that would risk creating a Piedmont for all the Tuareg people, a situation eerily similar to that of the Kurds. There would be Tuareg irredentist pressures from Mauretania, Algeria, Libya, and, especially, Niger. An independent Azawad state would be a recipe for regional destabilization. And since nationalism has been losing its charm, the downtrodden can most likely be mobilized by the Islamists.

Still another solution would be to contain the Islamist fever in northern Mali with tactics pioneered by Morocco against the Polisario Front nationalists of West Sahara. But that would entail the cooperation of all the neighboring countries. First, a coordinated counterinsurgency campaign would force the Islamists of all ilk into the Azawad through chokepoints. Then, a security perimeter would be established and defended along the borders of the province/state/entity/region. Next, the Tuareg’s MNLA would be shored up in fortified cities and oases to defend them against the Islamists, who would wither away in the desert.

This sort of terrain-specific containment is quite feasible given that only a portion of Mali would be left to destabilization. It worked elsewhere. Even the war in Somalia was largely limited to the nation’s central coast and the area around Mogadishu, while Somaliland and Puntland remained largely violence-free with their traditional leaders at the helm. Fighting by proxy between Sudan and South Sudan now takes place mainly in the frontier region of the Nuba Mountains (South Kordofan).  In Congo, the violence primarily impacts its eastern part, Kivu province, in particular, and the border bushland of Uganda and Rwanda.

Of course in the contained Azawad, there would be serious human rights issues to reckon with. No one wants northern Mali to turn into eastern Namibia with its genocide of the Herero by the Germans at the beginning of the 20th century.

Integrated Strategy, American leadership

Whatever the solution, U.S. leadership should be firm, but our footprint should be light. No direct involvement is advisable. Stabilization is in our national interest, but we should not overextend ourselves, in particular when the economy is weak and we are rocked by socialistic experiments at home. Otherwise, we shall suffer a death by a thousand cuts.

The Mali operation will not be a cakewalk. There will be numerous challenges for us in terms of strategy, logistics, and geopolitics – global and regional. Funds are scarce. AFRICOM is located awkwardly in Stuttgart, Germany. On the one hand, removing anything from Germany is inadvisable, as it eliminates the barriers to Berlin’s unilateralism. On the other hand, it would be advisable to keep our African command close to the theater of operations. A recent harebrained scheme of module ships as U.S. expeditionary force headquarters anchored off of the coast of West Africa should be discarded unless the designers volunteer to live on them for a year first. Perhaps then it may be time to pay attention to Gordon G. Chang’s proposition to relocate Africom to Terceira in the Azores. Apparently, the Chinese covet an old U.S. Air Force base there. That may be a solution. No country would have us on the continent, ostensibly to preclude neo-colonialism but, in reality, to prevent foisting upon the would-be African host nation our notions of human rights. Most Africans are happy to deal with the Chinese, neo-colonialism or not, because Beijing does not impose any democratic standards on the natives.

But the United States has its interests to look after in Africa. Multilateralism that advances our power in the world is welcome. Swatting the Islamists in Mali via proxy is good enough and efficient enough given the dearth of resources and our current overextension. Hoping to nation build and to establish a Western-style democracy in Mali or elsewhere from the top down is utopian. Just look at Iraq and Afghanistan. No wonder the Pentagon is wary.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at The Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, D.C., where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Africa figures prominently in his seminar on Genocide and Genocide Prevention.

This article was originally published by the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.