The American Interest
The Middle East & Beyond
Published on February 27, 2013
A French Exit Strategy in Mali

It has come to light in recent days that alongside French and other African troops fighting in Mali are both Chadians and, more important, cadres of the MNLA—the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. The few media expressions of this latter datum generally dump this key piece of information far down in their articles. We have to wait until the ninth of 11 paragraphs in this piece, for example, for any mention of the MNLA.

The importance of the Chadian soldiers ought to be obvious. They understand exactly what the mostly Tuareg Islamist rebels are doing tactically, because they have used the same tactics in more or less the same setting for approximately half of forever. (In an earlier post I suggested that anyone who wants to understand the tactical nature of this war in Mali should review the war between Chad and Libya from the mid-1980s.)
But it’s the revelation about the alliance of convenience between France and the MNLA that is by far the most interesting. Until the war in Libya helped to boost the fortunes of Ansar ul-Dine in Mali, the MNLA was the Tuareg rebel organization putting pressure on Bamako over many, many years. Once the Islamists took control of the rebellion, the MNLA seemed to disappear into thin air—or at least that was the impression one got from the Western media. I was pretty certain they were still around somewhere nearby, but I wondered what their strength and new strategy might be. Now I think we know: The MNLA has put itself forward as a useful proxy of France in the hope that, when the war is over, it will become the main political force in the Tuareg areas of Mali—this time with the acquiescence of France and, presumably, also of the dependent government in Bamako (however grudgingly given).

It is not a bad bet. The French, having hastily announced very expansive war aims, soon found themselves in a nasty fix: namely, without the means to achieve their ends. They certainly did not wish to police all of northern Mali themselves from now until eternity, and the more realistic among French civilian and military decision-makers had to understand fairly quickly that no African Union force could do the job either. And there stood the MNLA, Tuaregs prepared to do a deal.

The most that the French will promise the MNLA in payment for its services is pressure on Bamako to offer genuine autonomy to the Tuaregs. Ultimately, that will not satisfy the MNLA. After all, they are the ones who last April declared Azawad independent. So this is not over, or even close to being over, in a political sense. For the time being, however, neither the French nor the secular Tuareg nationalists have a better option.  So it goes in politics as well as life. As Wallace Stevens once put it, “Our paradise is the imperfect.”

[Image of Chadian soldiers from AFP/Getty images.]