The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Crisis in Mali
Published on June 7, 2012

In a vivid illustration of Mali’s present instability, on May 21 protesters stormed the presidential palace in the capital city Bamako and beat the country’s interim civilian President, Dioncounda Traoré, into unconsciousness. As Traoré flew to France for treatment, war continued in northern Mali, where ethnic separatists, armed Islamists and reactionary militias are vying to control a vast Saharan territory. Mali’s interlinked crises—political turmoil in the south, conflict in the north—are alarming West African governments, raising fears that al-Qaeda affiliates will benefit from the chaos, and prompting talk of American support for an armed intervention by regional powers.

Few anticipated this level of turmoil as Mali headed into 2012. Indeed the country boasted a democratic record relatively rare in sub-Saharan Africa: the presidential elections set for April would have marked the second consecutive peaceful transfer of power from one civilian president to another. Then-President Amadou Toumani Touré, serving his second and final term, had refrained from anointing a successor and hoped to earn a legacy as a great African statesman.

All that changed when rebellion broke out in northern Mali on January 17. The rebellion, initially dominated by the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (“The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad”, or MNLA), tapped into long-term grievances and recent events. The MNLA’s Tuareg leaders decry what they see as decades of domination and under-development by successive regimes headquartered in southern Mali, from the French colonial administration up to Touré’s government. The Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic, pastoralist set of communities linked by shared languages and cultures, have launched three previous rebellions in Mali and in neighboring Niger since independence in 1960. The “Azawad” in the MNLA’s name refers to northern Mali, specifically the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.

The last Tuareg rebellion ended in 2009, partly due to the mediation of the late Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Given Touré’s failure to address core Tuareg grievances, rebellion would probably have broken out again, but the Libyan civil war in 2011 surely hastened its reappearance: During his final months of life, Qaddafi recruited fighters among his Tuareg connections living inside Libya and in nearby countries like Mali. After his death, Tuareg fighters and Libyan arms flowed back into Mali, providing part of the human and military resources for the rebellion.

After the rebellion began, the MNLA handed the Malian army a series of humiliating defeats. Setbacks in the north prompted protests in the south. Military families marched on the capital, complaining that soldiers lacked equipment. The administration made overtures to the rebels, but nothing came of them. On March 21–22, junior officers in the capital overthrew Touré. The new regime, the soldiers claimed, would preserve national unity and “restore democracy” (the junta’s official name is La Comité National pour le Redressement de la Démocratie et la Restauration de l’État, or “The Committee for the Re-establishment of Democratic and the Restoration of the State”). Many commentators noted the irony of the coup leaders’ disruption of a scheduled election to achieve this goal. But the coup revealed a deep sense of crisis and uncertainty surrounding the capacity of Mali’s civilian leaders to put down the northern rebellion.

The junta, rather than defeating the rebels, struggled to consolidate political control in the south. Foreign governments condemned the coup. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a bloc whose political role has grown since the 1990s, imposed sanctions on Mali when the junta initially refused to leave power. A transitional civilian regime took over at ECOWAS’ urging but stumbled through its forty-day term without holding elections as promised. Now interim President Traoré is set to remain in power for another year, but coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has retained strong political influence.

Confusion in the south gave rebels in the north a free hand. In the weeks after the coup, the MNLA seized the towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, declaring official independence for the Azawad on April 6. Yet the MNLA, too, failed to consolidate power. The rebellion fragmented. An Arab self-defense militia appeared, calling itself Le Front national de libération de l’Azawad (“National Front of Liberation of the Azawad”) and offering a reminder that northern Mali is home not just to Tuareg, but also to Arabs, Fulani, Songhai, and others.

An even bigger threat to the MNLA was the Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali and his group Ansar Dine (Arabic, Ansar al Din, or “Defenders of the Faith”). Ansar Dine rejected the MNLA’s vision of a secular Azawad in favor of imposing a version of Islamic law that involves whipping alcohol drinkers and cigarette smokers, mandating veils for women, and destroying shrines (on the grounds that they encourage polytheism). As MNLA fighters robbed, raped, and killed civilians, Ansar Dine gained some popularity by offering law and order, protection, and aid to populations struggling to survive. After weeks of tension, the MNLA, initially the stronger party, agreed to an alliance with Ansar Dine on May 26 and partly endorsed the latter’s platform. Disagreements have already emerged concerning the enforcement of shari’a law, and the merger looks to be weakening. The MNLA’s waffling gives Ansar Dine room to set the tone for northern Malian politics.

As Ansar Dine’s power grows, the group is cultivating ties with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM, a formal franchise of al-Qaeda since 2006, emerged out of radical Islamist groups in Algeria’s 1992–2002 civil war. Officially, AQIM hopes to topple regional governments and replace them with an Islamic state, but to some extent the group functions as a for-profit criminal network. Since the mid-2000s, AQIM has kidnapped Western tourists in the Sahara, skirmished with soldiers in Sahelian countries, and bombed embassies in Mauritania and the United Nations building in Algeria. AQIM has used northern Mali as one of its staging grounds, but it has never before participated openly in administering territory.

Analysts believe AQIM is divided into several factions, some of them more criminal than ideological, but one factional commander, Abdulmalik Droukdel, has instructed his men to support Ansar Dine. Droukdel’s ambitions are long term, and his political sense somewhat cautious: He has advised Ansar Dine to avoid conflict with the MNLA and introduce Islamic law gradually. The Ansar Dine-AQIM alliance raises fears that northern Mali will become a “safe haven” for transnational terrorists.

Back in Bamako, the transitional government possesses neither the administrative capacity nor the political clarity that would be necessary to retake the north. What implications, then, do Mali’s twin crises have for its neighbors and for the United States?

Regional Implications

Mali’s instability poses four major problems for the region. The first is refugees. Since January, more than 260,000 Malians have fled their homes. Mali’s refugees add to last year’s influx of displaced persons from Libya into the Sahel. The new refugees burden communities and governments that have already stretched resources thin: Drought in the Sahel has left an estimated 15 million people without sufficient food.

The second problem is that the Tuareg rebellion could spread. In neighboring Niger, the government has so far preserved a working relationship with Tuareg leaders. But even if Niger avoids rebellion, no government in the region supports independence for Azawad, whose existence might awaken separatist desires elsewhere and complicate the diplomatic life of other states.

The third problem is AQIM. Kidnappings by AQIM have harmed the economies of Niger, Mauritania, and Mali for several years. With the current conflict in northern Mali, some of the last remaining Westerners have left the region, and few tourists will return any time soon. Meanwhile, gunmen from an AQIM splinter group kidnapped seven Algerian diplomats in Gao in April, putting the Algerian government in the unenviable position of conducting extended negotiations with criminals. AQIM’s foothold in northern Mali will worry Mauritania, Niger and Algeria, all of whose armies clash periodically with the group. Mauritania, which hunted AQIM fighters inside Mali in 2010 and 2011, recently stepped up military exercises near its border with Mali.

The fourth problem is that, while the prospect of a coup does not necessarily loom over every other regime in the region, the fall of a government with internationally renowned democratic credentials is a blow to the region’s reputation. Events in Mali could make foreign investors think twice about investing in the region: Already, gold investors have seen their stocks plummet overnight, and South Africa’s Illovo Sugar recently pulled up stakes. West African governments would prefer that their part of the continent make headlines for things other than military takeovers and Islamist violence.

Regional Response and U.S. Interests

Regional powers have focused on promoting civilian rule in southern Mali. ECOWAS, which responded rapidly and decisively not only to the coup in Mali but also to the April coup in Guinea-Bissau, is keen to make West African military takeovers a thing of the past. But ECOWAS also wants to see northern Mali return to Bamako’s control.

ECOWAS has discussed sending troops to Mali. Details, however, are scant. The proposed force might have responsibility both for supervising the civilian transition and for helping the Malian army reclaim the north. But the junta in Mali opposes the idea. The force, moreover, might have only 3,000 troops, and it’s unclear how ECOWAS would either find or fund those troops. ECOWAS has requested assistance from the United Nations, as well as authorization to deploy troops to Mali. France, whose special forces helped decide a post-election conflict in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011, is another potential source of support, but the outlines of newly elected French President Francois Hollande’s Africa policies are not yet clear. ECOWAS has also asked the United States for help. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told reporters on May 23 that the U.S. is “willing to provide logisticians and planners . . . but the mission and role must be defined before we make any kind of commitment.”

Does the United States have interests at stake in Mali? To the extent that Mali’s crises disrupt regional stability, allow al-Qaeda’s affiliates to expand and facilitate the circulation of powerful weapons, the situation there does affect American interests, broadly defined. In a sense, the rise of Ansar Dine and AQIM in northern Mali seems to confirm the gloomy predictions that have circulated since 9/11 about ungoverned spaces in the Sahara becoming safe havens for transnational terrorists with aspirations to attack America. At the same time, for top officials in Washington, most global investors and international media outlets, Mali is peripheral. The rapidly shifting political winds in northern Mali, moreover, mean that Ansar Dine’s (and AQIM’s) moment in the political sun may prove relatively brief. Mali in 2012 is not Afghanistan in 1994; there is still a real central government, and the rebels have no support from neighboring regimes. 

So far, Washington’s response to Mali’s troubles looks like a continuation of its approach toward other crises in West Africa: condemning coups, cutting off aid to coup-torn countries, and working through regional partners to contain violent movements. The U.S. government, whose counterterrorism partnership with Algeria has deepened in the past decade, may lean more on Algiers in dealing with AQIM. Mauritania, as noted above, has a role as well; neither Algeria nor Mauritania belongs to ECOWAS, meaning they are not bound by its decisions in determining their own responses to the conflict in Mali.

Many African governments, including Nigeria, which is one of the main powers in ECOWAS, strongly oppose the idea of America deploying combat troops in Africa. (Opposition notwithstanding, the Pentagon has conducted numerous training exercises in West Africa through its Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership and predecessor programs; indeed, Captain Sanogo benefited from U.S. training). But if ECOWAS defines its mission in Mali and musters the necessary troops, Washington has indicated it will participate in some form.

The chances of such an intervention will increase if the situation in Mali worsens. If soldiers stifle change in Bamako, and the Ansar Dine-AQIM alliance continues to hold territory in the north, Mali will become a bigger topic of discussion in Washington, Paris, and at ECOWAS’ now-frequent summits.

Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University.