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Mali - An other Muslim Nation under Turmoil

Terrorism is just one of many scourges to beset the people of Mali [90% Muslims]for decades:
Blaming al-Qaida or neo-colonialism is too simple in a country where many have been marginalised for too long.
Mali updates >>>>
There are two versions of recent events in Mali, which have emerged in recent weeks, each suggesting that the explanation for the takeover of the country's north by Islamist groups is terribly simple.  

We wouldn't be in this mess, runs the first argument, if it weren't for the huge numbers of weapons that came into Mali after the west brought down the Gaddafi regime in neighbouring Libya; and if the US military advisers had not trained some of those who defected to the Islamist cause; and if the west was not secretly just interested in Mali's resources. In other words, it's the west's neocolonialism that is to blame.

The second argument is simpler still. It blames Mali's problems on the intervention of a resurgent al-Qaida, whatever that appellation means these days. This argument frames Mali as a global security problem on Europe's doorstep. This is the version preferred by some European governments, not least the French, and that led to their military intervention in Mali.

Like so much that has been written recently about Mali – and about the al-Qaida-affiliated groups currently fighting French and Malian forces – both accounts are too ideologically pat to describe what has really taken place.

Instead, Mali's escalating problems, which spilled over into Algeria last week, are better described as the culmination of half a century of tensions between different groups in Mali. These have been exacerbated by a long period of the government playing competing interests off against each other; and also by the sudden availability of weapons in the Tuareg and Arab communities of the country's impoverished north who have long chafed under Bamako's rule.

The reality is that if western governments and institutions have been at fault it has been over their long-running and blithe acceptance and promotion of the "procedural" version of democracy adopted by the country's upper and middle classes in Bamako. That is, more interested in establishing a system than in public participation. This is a democracy that has been neither socially nor regionally inclusive. In that respect, we should not perhaps be terribly surprised. What's more, Mali is hardly the first place where progress towards democracy has been largely overhyped. Think of Rwanda, Iraq or even Afghanistan in the immediate post-Taliban period.

The facts make for depressing reading. Mali's arid north, which accounts for some 70% of the country's territory (although only 10% of its population), has long been one of the poorest regions in Africa. It has been starved of central government investment and international aid, its population marginalised under both the leftwing government that ruled Mali through most of the 1960s and the military regime that followed. Investment, however, did increase during the mid-1990s with the transition to democracy.

In addition to these issues, there has long been resentment among the rural Tuaregs and Arabs over their inclusion in the Malian state. The first Tuareg revolt took place not long after independence in 1960. It was brutally suppressed, with the north placed under military control.

A second Tuareg rebellion, at the start of the 1990s, quickly developed into a far more complex low-level conflict. A sort of competition in rebellion emerged with the more sedentary Songhai community (protected by its own militia) and between different Tuareg and Arab militant groups who fought among each other for supremacy. All this was deliberately exploited by the central government in Bamako. There were also rising tensions between traditional tribal nobles and those lower in the hierarchy. A fractious peace lasted from the mid-1990s until 2006, when another outbreak of violence took place.

In Mali's post-dictatorship history, Bamako's response to these periodic outbreaks of rebellion has, depressingly, remained the same – a "militiatary" policy that meant that different groups armed to neutralise each other. That policy was pursued over a long period even as former peace agreements were largely allowed to slip on their commitments and old grievances allowed to fester.

Indeed, close analysts of developments in Mali have been concerned for almost a decade by the increasing dysfunctional nature of the country's government, as well as by the re-emergence of Tuareg and Islamist armed factions in the north.

The International Crisis Group noted in a report last July that in former president Touré's time in power, "relations between the centre of power in Bamako and the periphery rested on a loose network of personal, clientelistic, even mafia-style alliances". It's a low-cost system of governance that, continued the report, " disintegrated when faced with a rebellion that was quickly transformed into a well-armed group by the effects of the Libyan crisis and the opportunism of Islamist groups".

If the neocolonialist depiction of Mali's problems are lacking, then the second focus on "al-Qaida" as a cause of Mali's difficulties is not much more helpful. There have been regional factors at work in destabilising Mali. Relying on senior Arab tribal figures in the north, who often combined both Islamist political interests with involvement in the smuggling of cigarettes and drugs and people, Touré struggled to resist the Algerian-dominated al-Qaida establishing itself in northern Mali. They had forged relationships with the same tribal figures.

However, the reality is that al-Qaida style groups, where they have established themselves, have been a symptom of existing instability and weak governance. This also applies to Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen, where they have struggled to win any measure of popular support for their extremist ambitions. In the context of Mali and the wider region, many of these groups have also been synonymous with criminality as well as jihad.

Indeed, as Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist who has spent five years in Mali, argued in his blog, Bridges from Bamako, last week, many of the Islamist fighters in the north, including the group led by Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, are viewed with deep suspicion. "Malians," he argues, "widely perceive these groups as foreign invaders, motivated by racism and greed as well as a perverted, even ignorant view of their faith."

While only a fool would predict what may come to pass in Mali and the Sahel in the coming months, one thing is clear. If and when the French and African intervention comes to a conclusion, whatever new democratic government is installed in Bamako needs to talk to those who have so long been held at arm's length, at Mali's margins.

Any new attempt to establish democracy must be one that is genuinely inclusive, not a neoliberal version designed only for the elites. That is the real guarantee of stability, a stability that would leave little room for al-Qaida-affiliated groups.
A Timbuktu Test For Europe:

Last year soon after the fabled Timbuktu had fallen first to Tuareg separatists and then to jihadists linked with al-Qaeda, I wrote to various editors proposing a trip to Mali. They all said no.

The editors didn't see Mali's troubles as a big enough problem to warrant the expense and risk of putting someone on the ground. Now it looks as though many of the people making decisions about Europe’s defense and security thought the same way.
As French and West African troops pile into Mali, the country is shaping up as an important test for European defense, whether formally in terms of Europe’s Common Security andDefense Policy, or informally in terms of bilateral support. Europe's governments need to ask themselves if they are prepared to do more to help France's military, whether with logistical support or with troops.
The first thing to note is that Mali’s problems, and those of the wider Sahel -- countries on the belt of land that runs along the southern edge of the Sahara -- are not new. There was no lack of intelligence about them. In September 2011, the European Union prepared a detailed strategy paper on the region, with recommendations of what to do and how to tackle the issue of the Sahel becoming an empty space free for jihadists to roam. The U.S. also has been deeply involved there for more than a decade, training soldiers for counterinsurgency operations and closely monitoring the situation on the ground.
Clearly, the net result wasn't very successful. Otherwise, the Malian army would have been able to defend the north after Libya's Muammar Qaddafi fell in 2011, when well-armed Tuareg fighters returned from Libya to Mali. That changed the strategic balance between the rebels and the government.
Over the last few months, preparations have been made for an EU military-training mission. A United Nations Security Council resolution in December gave a green light to forming a West African military mission to send to Mali. Slowly the stage was being set for a reconquest of the north.
The international timetable was upset, however, when the Islamists made a pre-emptive strike from the north and the Malian government appealed to France to intervene, which it did on Jan. 11. Within days, on Jan. 16, a group of jihadists counterattacked at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, which supplies 2 percent of Europe's natural-gas imports. It appears that the attackers came from countries all over the region, including Nigeria.
On Jan. 17, EU foreign ministers met to give full support to the French and to accelerate in Mali the EU's training mission, which will start to deploy within weeks. They also agreed to help finance the West African peacekeepers.
The French have been welcomed by most Malians, despite their colonial history. "The French state is a liberator," said Salif Keita, the Malian singer, who has a big following in Europe. Malian musicians, more generally, have been singing for peace and condemningthe music-banning Islamists of the north.
On Malian television, local interviewees say it is right that France should help Mali in its hour of need, because Malian soldiers of the legendary Tirailleurs Senegalais regiment died for France, including in the two world wars.
It isn't yet clear, though, whether the French troops will be joined by their European allies. So far, the U.K., GermanySpainBelgium and Denmark have offered transport planes and logistical support. France has not yet asked for boots on the ground, over and above those soldiers who will come as part of the EU training mission.
Neither has France called on the EU Battlegroup, the rapid-deployment force that was set up in 2007 for precisely these kinds of fast-moving circumstances, and has yet to be sent into action. The unit, currently on standby, is made up of about 1,500 French, German and Polish troops.
Whether or not the French eventually call on the Battlegroup, it is likely, failing a quick victory, that the rest of Europe will soon face a choice: either support the French and the Malians with real resources, or concede defeat in an area where Europe's interests, including its energy supplies, are directly threatened. Gilles Kepel, one of France's foremost Middle East scholars writes in Le Monde newspaper:
France going it alone, in a challenge that concerns the   whole of Europe on its southern flank, is untenable without rendering the European Union meaningless.
Libya and Algeria export much of their natural gas and oil to the EU. A third of Italy’s natural gas comes from Algeria, so it is clearly in Europe’s self-interest to prevent northern Mali from becoming the launchpad for attacks. Nigeria to the south, which for years has been under attack from the Islamic terrorists Boko Haram, is also a significant oil producer.
Unlike Syria, a far more complex problem, stabilizing Mali is probably doable. Even Russia, which opposed the international military intervention in Libya and now more forcefully in Syria, has offered to lift weapons and associated personnel to work with the French in Mali, according to the French newspaper Le Figaro -- something the U.S. has yet to do.
Although few Europeans are aware, the EU is already present in Africa. The EU is training security forces in Niger, while the U.K., for example, is working with Mauritania on counterterrorism. An EU naval force has been in action to crush piracy off the Somali coast, while the EU is also training Somali troops in Uganda and paying for African peacekeepers in Somalia. U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague described the EU's involvement in Somalia as a model for Mali, in a BBC radio interview this morning. He added:
What we don’t want in these countries like Mali is the 20 years of being a failed state that preceded all of that in Somalia.
The optimistic scenario is that, having been slow off the mark, the EU, or at least European countries acting together in one combination or another, is now ready to help in Mali, recognizing that, as the U.S. pivots to Asia, Europe will need to do more to secure its own interests in Africa and the Middle East.
As Le Figaro newspaper has noted, the U.K. was slow to wake up to the Sahel threat only realizing how serious it was when it understood the connections between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is now ensconced in northern Mali. Germans, too, need to understand the threat, according to Ute Schaeffer, the editor in chief of Deutsche Welle, who writes:
Mali has the potential to turn into a bomb under the whole region: Should Mali fall, the Sahel goes up in flames -- and that's a region that Germany, too, should finally realize is one of its immediate neighbors.
The pessimistic scenario is that if the French need help, their allies won't be there for them because of falling EU defense budgets and the doleful experiences of Afghanistan andIraq. This is Europe’s Timbuktu test: If Europe fails it, then the jihadists will win an important battle, in a war that will be far from over.
(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this article: Tim Judah at : To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at
Mali: The Wind, the Sand and the Stars:

The most capable force among the insurgent coalition in Mali was trained by American Special Forces. That program began in 2008 under the auspices of the U.S. Army's African Command (United States Africa Command USAFRICOM or AFRICOM). Of the four elite units that acquired refined skills and sophisticated equipment, three defected to the rebels in April -- taking their special skills, arms and critical transport equipment with them. These American-trained units were supposed to be the key to repelling attacks from Islamist militants reinforced by veterans from the Libyan war. Instead, they nailed the lid on the defeated Malian army.

A complementary program provided the Malian army's senior officer corps with schooling in command, operations and organizational management. They were routed by the motley rebel forces early 2012 and then proceeded to usurp the civilian government In Bamako. The coup leader is Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who attended a four-month infantry officer basic training course in Fort Benning,

The Malian mission was one element of a grand strategy for making the Western Sahara a terrorist-free, Salafist free zone that now is in tatters. General Carter F. Ham, the four star chief of Africa Command (headquartered in Stuttgart for some inexplicable reason), and some of his senior subordinates are quoted in last weekend's New York Times (January 12) as greatly surprised by that "unacceptable....disappointing" development. Evidently, they are shocked -- shocked that such a thing could have occurred. Unlike Captain Reynaud, they are not feigning ignorance. "The coup in Mali progressed very rapidly and with very little warning," said command spokesman Tom Davis. "The spark that ignited it occurred within their junior military ranks" where presumably we had little personal contact.

One recognizes tragic farce when one sees it; after all, we've been given an intensive twelve year course in tragic farce. Yet, the reaction at home has been nearly non-existent. Are we so inured to incompetence and its consequences that it makes not a ripple in policy circles and among our political class generally? Where else in the few score countries where we are doing 'Malis' are we preparing the ground for similar fiascos?

Mali is not an isolated happenstance. It has precedents. The Zetas, Mexico's most ruthlessly violent drug cartel, stems from a founding core of former commandos in the Mexican Army's elite forces (Grupo Areomovil de Fuerzas Especiales or GAFE) who received training at Fort Bragg in the mid-1990s. The deserted to become enforcers for the Gulf Cartel before setting up their own highly lucrative and blood thirsty operation in 2010.

It is of course unrealistic to posit these types of missions on complete assurance as to the actual capabilities and political orientation of the people you've trained and the units that you've formed. Here are perhaps two useful criteria to apply in deciding whether to go ahead anyway. One, is the American national interest stake great enough to warrant the costs and the risks of things going awry? I do not believe that the answer should have been 'yes' in Mali 5 years ago.

Checking as to what was the state of affairs five years ago, one learns that the formation we now call al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM ) consisted, by best estimates, of some hundreds of persons belonging to disparate groups: inter alia spin-offs from the Algerian insurrection of the 1990s who took refuge in the desert; thugs/kidnappers like Mokhtar Belmokhta ("Mr. Marlboro" his nom de commerce) who is more mafia capo than Islamic terrorist; and some stray Salafists . They were scattered across Algeria, Niger and Mali. This rag-tag "terror network" which we dubbed AQM was a threat mainly to naive French tourists taking the scenic route across the Sahara.

Only within the past 18 months have they acquired any serious fighting capability. Then, things happened: the violent break-up of Libya with the resulting dispersal of the African mercenaries from Gaddafi's army along with arms from his well-stocked depots. Among them were Malians drawn from both Tuareg tribes who harbored their own deep-seated grievances against the government in Bamako, and more hard-core Islamist elements. They then were joined by the American trained elite units who are an important stiffening element in the insurgents' ranks.

It is critical to bear in mind one feature of those units, and the overall mission to whip the Malian army into shape. The purpose from the outset was not to prepare them to deal with an external aggressor - none existed. Their concern was internal threats from militant jihadist groups of Islamists who might seek to topple the pro-Western regime in order to establish a sharia state. Such an eventuality was visualized as tantamount to posing a serious terrorist threat to American interests. So the political and religious sentiments of the elite units should have been the paramount concern from the outset. They were not.

A sober monitoring of this key dimension was imperative as the mission proceeded. That wasn't done. Evidently the Africa Command leadership who worked with the Malians for 50 months had no idea as to their politico/sectarian disposition. Hence, the complete surprise of General Ham et al in Germany. In fairness to the Special Forces officers who did the actual training, one suspects that none spent 50 months with the Malians -- or anything like it. Their tours probably lasted a year or less. In addition, the training likely was segmented and specialized: i.e. different USA officers trained them in different skills. Finally, they may have moved from unit to unit -- thereby never establishing strong bonds. Those overseeing the program in Stuttgart failed to take account of this -- thereby disregarding the nature of the mission they led and their Command's underlying rationale.

If the above is more or less accurate, it's no great surprise that we were surprised. Had T.E. Lawrence and his colleagues operated this way, there would have been a good chance that Faisal and the brilliant tactical commander of the Arab camel cavalry Atta had wound up defending the Ottoman Caliphate and attacking the British army of kafirs and Crusaders instead of allying with it.

In a world of reasonable accountability, Admiral William H. McRaven the aggressive head of all US Special Forces (United States Special Operations Command USSOCOM), and General Ham who took charge of Africa Command in March 2011 after his predecessor, General William E. 'Kip' Ward, was removed on charges of misappropriating public monies, could be sacked. All other officers in charge of such programs would be given tutorials in what they are meant to accomplish.

In perspective, it is becoming increasingly clear that the United States has allowed its infatuation with unconventional warfare conducted by Special Forces, and unconventional technology as exemplified by drones, to drive assessment of what we need to do and what we should do in an all-embracing 'war-on-terror" that no one can any longer define. In Mali we have a classic case of iatrogenic treatment -- as they say in medical circles. The misguided prescription for a minor illness produced a more severe illness. Why go back to a physician who does this repeatedly (see, too, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen)?

Our compulsion is fired, and the resulting actions -- however calamitous -- are justified by the evocation of terror. Any violence by Muslim militants anywhere sets these passions in motion, passions that then freight them with the full force of 9/11 and its sequels. "This is terror," pronounces Hillary Clinton after the Algerian commando assault at Ain Amenis results in civilian deaths. "Terror" -- the one word is enough, there and then, to put thought on sabbatical. Spice it with the word "evil" and the mind seizes up entirely.

Leon Panetta vows that we shall not rest until we have tracked down the killers of the dead American, Frederick Buttaccio -- who actually died of a heart attack during the raid. Moreover, "They are a threat to our country. They're a threat to the world."

What is most important is not what happens in the remote stretches of the Sahara where the so-called AQIM will be bloodied and dispersed by the French while remaining a nuisance to the weak states of the Sahel. Some of the wayward American-trained soldiers will gradually brought back into the government fold and the Tuareg could gain a measure of deserved autonomy. Rash tourists will remain at risk as kidnapping and smuggling regain their place as mainstays of the Saharan economy. It is what lessons we learn that counts. We have McRaven and others on record as defining Special Forces missions in Africa -- and elsewhere -- as encompassing much that normally was associated with the CIA and State. Do we wish them better luck in future or reel them in?

Admiral McRaven has promulgated a detailed, audacious plan to give the central role for advancing American interests (very broadly defined) to Special Operations Command. As outlined in the New York Times last February (Feb. 13), he is putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive strategy for using his 60,000 personnel as a multi-purpose, semi-autonomous force operating on every continent except Antarctica. It will be designated the military's tool of choice - and not only to fight insurgencies, but also Latin American drug cartels in Honduras, Mexico, Columbia, etc. and bandit gangs in eastern Congo. SOC will be mandated to do active intelligence gathering, to engage in political penetration of other countries and governments, to undertake training and liaison with foreign militaries, and to address underlying conditions that spark insurgencies.

McRaven modestly admits that "we're not yet ready... to run the global war on terror." We must wait awhile for that happy day to arrive. Where are the State Department and other Executive Branch agencies in all this? The White House? Eclipsed. The State Department was not even briefed on the plan that bears the formidable name of Global SOF Alliance.

In a companion innovation, the Pentagon will send hundreds of additional spies overseas as part of an ambitious plan to assemble an espionage network that rivals the CIA. As Greg Miller has reported, ".... Among the Pentagon's top intelligence priorities... are Islamist militant groups in Africa." (Washington Post, Dec. 1 2012)

Mali - A Brief

The Sudanese Republic and Senegal became independent of France in 1960 as the Mali Federation. When Senegal withdrew after only a few months, what formerly made up the Sudanese Republic was renamed Mali. Rule by dictatorship was brought to a close in 1991 by a military coup that ushered in a period of democratic rule. President Alpha KONARE won Mali's first two democratic presidential elections in 1992 and 1997. In keeping with Mali's two-term constitutional limit, he stepped down in 2002 and was succeeded by Amadou TOURE, who was elected to a second term in 2007 elections that were widely judged to be free and fair.
Malian returnees from Libya in 2011 exacerbated tensions in northern Mali and Tuareg ethnic militias started a rebellion in January 2012. Low-mid level soldiers, frustrated with the poor handling of the rebellion overthrew TOURE on 22 March. Coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya SANOGO and his junta under the mediation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) returned power to a civilian administration in April with the appointment of interim President Dioncounda TRAORE. Interim Prime Minister Chieck Modibo DIARRA immediately appointed a unity cabinet. The post-coup chaos led to rebels expelling the Malian military from the three northern regions of the country, which remain under the control of a Tuareg militia, Ansar al-Din, and its terrorist group allies. Hundreds of thousands of northern Malians fled the violence to southern Mali and neighboring countries, exacerbating regional food insecurity in host communities. TRAORE was attacked by an angry mob in May and spent two months recovering in Paris, he returned in July. TRAORE and DIARRA announced a second unity government in August and in September called upon the international community to assist them in reclaiming land lost to rebels. SANOGO forced DIARRA to resign in December 2012; Django CISSOKO immediately replaced him and announced a third unity cabinet. The interim government is working with ECOWAS to organize negotiations with Tuareg rebels and the international community to plan a military intervention to retake the three northern regions.

Some of Mali's prominent natural resources include gold, being the third largest producer of gold in the African continent and salt. About half the population lives below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day.

Ethnic groups: Mande 50% (Bambara, Malinke, Soninke), Peul 17%, Voltaic 12%, Songhai 6%, Tuareg and Moor 10%, other 5%
Languages: French (official), Bambara 80%, numerous African languages
Religions: Muslim 90%, Christian 1%, indigenous beliefs 9%
Population: 15,494,466 (July 2012 est.)
country comparison to the world: 66

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