According to a report I saw this morning, French forces in Mali have seized an airport outside Gao, one of the provincial capitals turned Islamist stronghold.1 In response to this and in reaction to a conversation with someone with whom I was discussing Mali last night who did not know the backdrop, I have decided to give a rundown of the conflict.
Mali was a French colony until 1960 (which is part of the reason that France got involved militarily).2 Mali was governed by a dictator until a military coup established a democratic republic in 1991. There was a peaceful transfer of power through the first several elections, but this stability belied tensions in Northern Mali between ethnic groups, particularly against the ethnic Tuareg, who compose ten percent of the Malian population. In 2011 those tensions led to a rebellion, which led to a military coup by soldiers unhappy with how the government was handling the rebellion. The man who led the coup was Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, the beneficiary of US military aid to Mali in that he had come to the United States for military training on several occasions over a ten year period. The soldiers, nominally led by Sanogo, were frustrated with corruption in the government and had decided to protest. When they arrived at the presidential palace to protest to President Toure, they found it deserted. Only later that day did the soldiers decide to execute their coup and begin looting. Sanogo eventually agreed to return power to the elected government, but also obstructed that return as people refused to consider him a former head of state. At the same time, the Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist group with ties to Al Qaeda seized control of the North. In June of 2012 they captured the UNESCO World Heritage Site (and regional centre) Timbuktu.
In the month after taking Timbuktu, the Ansar Dine first shut down the tourist industry there and then began to destroy the mausoleums, shrines, and mosques, which they consider to be idol worship. The destruction prompted outrage from archeologists and historians, and a plea from the UNESCO director for international pressure to stop radical islamists from destroying world cultures (she wrote that this was just the latest incident). Then the Islamists banned the traditional drumming in Northern Mali. Stories began to leak out about the complete stagnation of Northern Mali, including grisly punishments, economic lethargy, and opposition to Ansar Dine, often led by relatively secular men and women. Ag Ghali, the Ansar Dine leader, was a leading Tuareg separatist (albeit one who drank and smoked and was considered unreliable) who was pushed out by the Tuareg after which returned as the leader of the fundamentalist Islamist group in favor of Sharia, not Tuareg nationalism, and he funded their cause through banditry, kidnapping, and drug trafficking.
As early as November 2012, the UN, goaded on by France, had put into place a plan that called for an African force of around 3,000 troops to be deployed in Mali along with a small number of French and American specialists and special forces. The plan also called for negotiations with Ansar Dine in an attempt to leverage them away from al Qaeda.
The Ansar Dine preempted the UN military action in early January by launching an offensive into the south, which led France to move forces from their current UN mission in the Ivory Coast into Mali, launched air strikes, and were followed by troops from African nations. While the UN had mandated a mission, the immediate impetus for French action seems to be the 8,000 French citizens in Bamako and French economic interests there. As of this morning, the Ansar Dine have been driven from Timbuktu, but residents there are without power or water. More frightening, though, are the reports that many ethnic Tuaregs are currently in hiding as Malian soldiers have been conducting summary, extrajudicial executions, and shelling Tuareg camps. The head of the US African Command has also publicly stated that Malian territorial integrity is non-negotiable, indicating that the MNLA (Tuareg separatists) will not be able to realize their dream of a Tuareg state. Despite the concerns about the current offensive, there are many editorials in support of the military action, including this one, by an author who argues that the Ansar Dine jihadists remain part of a large, interconnected–and largely non-Malian–group that seeks to create an Islamic emirate across the continent that must be met by Western military and economic action because previous attempts to curtail it have failed.
For my part, I am fascinated by the French military action.3 I suspect that it was largely warranted and justified– because Mali is a former French colony with many French citizens in the capital, because the UN had already sanctioned action, and because the recognized Malian government appealed for aid.4 I am somewhat concerned that there is too little appreciation for the complexity of Mali (or, as a friend put it yesterday, Africa in general) in that there cannot be a one size fits all solution. There are several different groups–including at least two distinct separatist groups– in Mali, though the Ansar Dine seemed to have aspirations toward conquering the whole country rather than creating a breakaway state. Moreover, as is currently being seen in the Malian actions on the campaign, there historically have been conflicts between the Tuareg people and the government of Mali, not wholly unlike the relationship between the Kurds and the official governments of the countries wherein they live. To demand the territorial integrity of Mali without at least attempting to find a solution to that long-standing problem is naive.
Additionally, the French forces have been successful in Mali to date, but it will be worth seeing whether or not (or against whom) a long term counterinsurgency campaign is necessary. One of the determinants in this case may be whether or not most of the Ansar Dine combatants are Malian–if they are, they may stay relatively local, but otherwise they may abandon Mali for other areas. In either case, the conflict is likely to spread into the surrounding Saharan countries, as has already been seen in with the hostage crisis at the Algerian oil compound. As far as I am aware, the UN mission remains localized to Mali.
I am also waiting to see how extensively the cultural sites of places like Timbuktu have been damaged.
1 Islamist is actually a misnomer, but I will get to that in a moment.
2 All historical and demographic information courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.
3 In part because in college I participated in a political simulation wherein I was the French Defense minister, and in part because I am fascinated at how quickly the Socialist president, Hollande used military force.
4You may, however, be able to debate the legitimacy of that recognition, but that is a different matter.