May 6, 2013

The human terrain of the conflict in Mali

The conflict in Mali veers towards a protracted counterinsurgency campaign. Lacking the skills necessary to contribute, Chadian troops are about to leave the conflict zone. France intends to keep 1,000 troops there for offensive operations against insurgents. They will operate side by side with the UN troops. The UN Security Council has authorised the deployment of 11,200 military and 1,440 police personnel to Mali. The UN forces will start their deployment on July 1st and their tasks will include the stabilisation of the country and the training of Malian troops. They will work side by side with the EU training mission in Mali.

The conflict in Mali veers towards a protracted counterinsurgency campaign. Lacking the skills necessary to contribute, Chadian troops are about to leave the conflict zone. France intends to keep 1,000 troops there for offensive operations against insurgents. They will operate side by side with the UN troops. The UN Security Council has authorised the deployment of 11,200 military and 1,440 police personnel to Mali. The UN forces will start their deployment on July 1st and their tasks will include the stabilisation of the country and the training of Malian troops. They will work side by side with the EU training mission in Mali.

Increasingly, international forces face those insurgents who have been able to escape from the French onslaught to neighbouring countries , regroup in the mountainous areas of Mali, and strike back. The Islamists’ freedom of movement is mind-boggling – roughly a month after French military operations commenced in Mali, 200 vehicles with fleeing Islamists were spotted as far away as North Darfur.

Mali’s geography and history suggest that the fate of a counterinsurgency campaign there will be decided by the management of the human terrain. Mali’s territory is two times bigger than that of Afghanistan, and the overall length of its borders exceeds 7,000 km. There is no way to physically isolate Mali from outside influences, which means that the road to stabilisation leads through the alleviation of existing grievances and the inclusion of all ethnic and religious groups. Only the ‘immunisation’ of the Malian population against external destabilising influences can provide any hope of keeping the country out of the Islamists’ grasp.

The latter, however, entails nothing less than connecting the Malian people to the idea of ‘state’. Malians would have to see their state as an institution that serves and protects the interests of all people living there. This may well be a near-impossible task due to the existence of a number of ethnic groups in Mali, coupled with the fact that the country is one of the poorest in the world. According to Katrine Høyer, Malian society never actually developed a post-colonial national identity. The country has long suffered from poor governance and fractures. The latter are visible (1) between the state and its people, (2) between north and south, (3) between state authorities and traditional authorities, and (4) between different communities.

The Tuareg community, whose independence aspirations are commonly understood to be the root cause of the current conflict, constitutes only 3-30% of population of northern Mali. More radical factions of Tuaregs (e.g. the aristocratic Ifoghas tribe) have opposed the rule of Bamako since the very beginning of Mali’s independence. They expected France to create a body called the Organisation of Saharan Regions to provide Tuaregs with a different status. The Tuaregs’ resentment also has a racial context as the Tuaregs view themselves to be ‘whiter’ than other people living in Mali. It is no wonder that Bamako retaliated by holding back investments to North Mali, attempting to manipulate different Tuareg clans or castes against each other, and supporting ethnic militias (e.g. the Ganda Koy militia of the Songhai people) opposed to Tuaregs. The martial prowess of the Tuaregs has kept them militarily undefeated by Malian forces, forcing the latter to quell Tuareg uprisings through extensive reprisals against civilian population and limited appeasement. Consequently, North Mali gradually has become an ‘alternatively governed’ part of the state.

The lack of government control over North Mali has contributed to the spread of organised crime and smuggling networks. Even worse, Mali’s government officials have become a part of criminal activities in the Sahel region. Wolfram Lacher writes that smuggling networks in Sahel region began to develop in 1970s. Initially, the illicit trade focused on transporting subsidised Libyan and Algerian goods to Mali and Niger, but the smuggling of weapons, drugs and illegal migrants became increasingly prominent after the turn of the century. UNODC has estimated that 14% (i.e. 20 tons) of Europe’s cocaine, with a total value of US $1 billion, transited West Africa in 2008. The second major drug smuggling route heads from Morocco towards Libya, Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. In 2008, 877 tons of cannabis resin were transported along that route.

The Tuaregs are particularly suited to transport illicit goods through the desert and their interest in earning money this way has been exploited by corrupt Malian officials. Whereas the Tuareg rebellion of 2006 was triggered primarily by political grievances, it involved no small measure of tribal rivalry regarding the control of drug trade. With regard to the latter, the Malian leadership opted to support the Imghad Tuareg tribe, and the Arab Berabiche and Lamhar tribes against the Ifoghas and Idnan Tuareg tribes. The Tuaregs have raided each other’s drug caravans, while some Malian officers have occasionally led private militias and intervened directly in favour of the side they supported. Clashes and raids on drug shipments between the Ifoghas and Kunta tribes on one side and the Imghad and Lamhar tribes on the other have been also reported over the years that followed the rebellion.

According to Lacher, the existence of criminal networks in North Mali has influenced support for various insurgent groups by Tuareg tribes. The Ifoghas have supported Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM’s financial and military power, built through kidnappings and ransom, has helped Ansar Dine to become the Tuareg’s main fighting force. On the other hand, the Imrad tribe has constituted the backbone of a secular National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad.

Having said all that, one cannot but notice a similarity with Afghanistan, which is another deeply fractured country where political struggle is intermingled with criminal activity. Both countries are in need of identity, which would form a solid basis for the state to be able to control its territory and to achieve prosperity for its people. Whereas a military intervention accompanied by an economic aid package appears to be a natural (quick) fix for such problems, it is not so. People, with their feelings, beliefs, values and historical experience, are much more than rational actors. Every coach of a sports team knows that rarely is a good team formed only through the acquisition of good players – they need to develop team spirit, trust and a will to succeed. How to achieve that in states that have tried and failed is a question without a concrete answer.

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