International involvement in Mali could be avoided by supporting the MNLA and the regional military.

Things are speeding up so fast in Mali it is hard to keep up. Recent events have perhaps now made an article I was working on meaningless. I publish it below to indicate how serious the consequences may be in the region.


On the 16th of November the MNLA clashed with AQMI/MUJAO at Ansongo and Fata towards Menaka, a remaining MNLA stronghold. First reports from Gao were of many AQIM/MUJAO dead and wounded coming back into town. I had heard that the MNLA had stood their ground, but now I hear they have been badly hit too, and that Menaka has fallen to AQIM/MUJAO.


Reports too of Mali military fighting AQMI near Lere west of Timbuktu.


With a weak MNLA, if we want to get rid of the “islamist/mafia force from the north of Mali, an international force will have to enter the arena. Or at the very least be seriously and credibly threatened. Very depressing.


Below is how I felt until 2 days ago:



Hurrah. Everyone is suddenly taking Mali seriously now. Frantic discussions at the UN, Hillary Clinton’s on the case, Francois Hollande makes hapless pronouncements, CNN have made it their “cause celebre” and Algeria is being pressurized.  


I have called for international engagement in the Mali crisis since March, since the foreign mafia islamist (sic) invasion of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal following the MNLA advance into these towns after the coup d’etat in Bamako opened their path. Not because I like the idea of a foreign invasion of Mali but because there was no other way of returning the north to either Tuareg or Malian control. 


To rid Mali of the foreigners, help from foreigners, in any capacity – perhaps like providing a room with some chairs and a table – was needed.


I have also called for Algeria, who I see as controlling events, to be pressurized.


But now I see my friends in Mali, from both sides of the divide, between a rock and a hard place.


The people have long known that the solution to their crisis requires outside help because it is outsiders who control their destiny. But now, looking at what is being debated by these outsiders, I worry that that help could end up just entrenching the stinking set up they had before, leaving the north/south fracture in place with a growing chasm of mistrust between the two sides, permitting a retreat of the islamist/mafia back to position one with all its international criminality in place and place them at the negotiating table able to either influence with their foreign sharia or return another day.


The “intervention” plan.




Back in March it all seemed so simple. Help the MNLA  with intelligence and/or special forces to fight the “islamists” in their midst in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, a battle they’d have jumped at, and all we’d be dealing with now would be a divided Mali.  There would have been innocents killed for sure in the street fighting, but not many. The “islamist” leaders could have been isolated and eliminated. Once the heads were removed the body would have wilted away, either to be picked off by the MNLA in the desert or the Malian army from the south.




Now is a totally different ball game. The “islamists” are more entrenched, they have many paid up conscripts, local lads with nothing else to do, reinforcements probably flooding in. Any international involvement will need to be much more hands on.


Following the sudden interest in Mali by the world’s media and politicians, The Economist had two articles on the crisis in the Nov 10-16 edition along these lines.


Their titles indicate the nature of the international world’s debate:


The first article is: Terror in the sahara: Getting the UN’s intervention plan right is more important than implementing it fast which concludes: “The trick is not to rush into Mali, but to apply force as a part of a coherent military and political plan. The lesson from similar operations in Somalia is that sound preparations pay dividends. Better to miss the UN’s deadline, even by some months, than to plunge recklessly in.”



The second is: Can the jihadists be stopped? Hectic diplomacy and preparations for a UN backed war against al Qaeda in the Sahara desert are both proceeding apace and concludes: “But whatever the sincerity of Mr Ag Ghali (leader of Ansar Dine) and his comrades (AQMI aand MUJAO) and the possibility of persuading them to come onside, it is clear that al-Qaeda itself has a growing presence in northern Mali – and that it can be contained only by a carefully designed military and political strategy. That cannot happen overnight.”

 Again agreed.


But I fear what may be behind any “political strategy”. Is it the western’s world’s self interests that we are talking about or a political strategy for Mali?


If the former, the strategy will fail the region, again, and fail the value of any war on terror, again, and fail the war on drugs, again and one day in the not too distant future it will all come back to haunt us.


If the latter, the region could be in for a new dawn. But something tells me – call me a sceptic, call me a romantic, call me a naive fool and a deluded warrior – that to acheive this new dawn the people will have to fight for themselves and that the on-the-ground presence of “international forces” should be minimised.


To avoid using international trroops the international world would have to back the forces on the ground


Perhaps there is still a way to prevent any foreign forces entering Mali.


For this the international world would have to give the carrot to  the MNLA and Ansar Dine to act together, meaning no need for a battle for Kidal. Back the Malian military from the south to take Timbuktu. Have ECOWAS support for MNLA and Ansar Dine to take Gao. They could be joined by a Malian military force headed by the Tuareg Ag Gammou who are currently in Niger. This group fled the conflict when it was MNLA vs Mali military as they were led by a Tuareg General in the Malian army with MNLA sympathys.


Support them with limited weaponry, intelligence and special forces perhaps, and ye perhaps the dreaded drones. Ideally the deal for doing this with all parties would be to have a demilitarized zone once the islamists are beaten along the river from Mopti to Gao, with perhaps ECOWAS troops in a peace keeping role. But even if that could not be done the control of the main 3 centres for the north would be nicely divided between Mali in Timbuktu, the Tuareg through MNLA and Ansar Dine in Kidal,  and then Gao would be in mixed ECOWAS and Ag Gammou’s Tuareg sympathetic Malian army.


This set up could bring all parties to the table with more than they had but not all that they want.


Then the talking has to begin. I’m sure the UN could provide a room.



My recent trip to Bamako and the Tuareg refugee camps in Burkina Faso.

Southerners and northerners – or should I say Bambara  and Tuareg, for these are the true opposing entities in the Mali domestic issue – are becoming more and more polarised.


On my recent trip  i found the Bamakois – from National Assembly deputies to fimmakers to friends and people on the streets all vehemently blaming the Tuareg for their current predicament and refusing to even countenance a new federal state, mixing in their language islamists and rebels together just as the international media and politicians love to do ( even The Economist carelessly refers to the “islamists” as “rebels”. Rebelling against what?).


And the Tuareg I met – those I knew and new friends, those keeping low in Bamako, the refugees in Burkina Faso who are students who had fled from their Bamako University  courses and Timbuktutians who could afford to leave home – all of whom had fled for fear of the Mali state as much as the islamists and many of whom before were likely to have been pro a unified Mali before –  now see autonomy as their bottom line. One student, Mariam (not her real name) from a wealthy Timbuktu family now in the Ouagadougou camp, said to me after I referred to returning to Mali: “That word, Mali, it fills me with fear now.”


The MNLA more than Iyad Ag Ghali speak for the Tuareg people. 

What is odd about reports of outside engagement and talks of negotiations between the parties is that the only Tuareg who seems to be being talked to is Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of the “islamist” group Ansar Dine. Correctly, Iyad has been identified as the man in the middle – he has variously led Tuareg rebellions, represented the Malian government, is possibly the one paid up converted “islamist” from his stint as a Malian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, he has ties to the drugs running and kidnapping firms from his days as the negotiator and he has links with the Algerian DRS.


Problem is he has no base. He will be negotiating personal terms!


For the Tuareg, Iyad is the great traitor. When the MNLA returned from Libya, he tried to be their leader but they refused him for his known meglamania, his previous treachery and his foreign islamism which has never been part of the Tuareg cause. His creation of Ansar Dine and subsequent linking up with AQIM and MUJAO were the actions of a wounded lion.


Not one voice did I hear on my travels through the region of support for him. Not amongst the refugees or the Tuaregs in Bamako. A surf over the various facebook groups set up by Tuareg youths and you’ll not see a kind word.


The MNLA on the other hand have all the support. This has not always been the case. Most Tuareg at the outset of the rebellion were exasperated by their plunging of their world into yet another crisis. But after the reprisals from the Malian army and deaths in Bamako form civilian attack in the early days of the rebellion, after the exodus of Tuareg students and families from Timbuktu, Kayes, Bamako and Kidal to Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger, the Tuareg had no other voice defending them. Now they see their plight and their only hope of salvation as tied up with the MNLA fighters, despite earlier misgivings.


And yet since April, no one has taken the MNLA seriously, either as a partner to resolve the islamist issue or as an essential element in any solution. For some unknown reason no one wants to engage the MNLA.


Now the MNLA are no angels, and their rebellion and take over of the north was naive, divisive (even within the north) and non-inclusive of other ethnic groups of the north. These factors, along with their refusal of sharia, contributed to their early eviction from Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal by the islamists.  But, as with all Tuareg rebellions, their strategy has been to attack only military positions, never civilians nor westerners; their cause has been secular and domestic, seeking freedom and representation and development. They probably quit the northen towns back in April despite their dominant force because they were not prepared to take on the islamists in the towns and cause large civilian casualties and because they could see that the forces against them wanted to usurp their legitimate cause.


For me, the main reason to engage the MNLA is that they may still hold the key to the cleanest solution to the “islamist” crisis. A solution that need not involve international interference on the ground. And a solution that is more likely to pave the way for a real debate on the constitutional futire of Mali.




(In response to an article in Eurasia review:


Algeria has been reluctant to put its weight behind any internationally sponsored solution, both before the current crisis and now.


The reason Algeria does not want international involvement is that it would lose control of the situation in Mali. And what it fears most is an independent Asawad.


Before this crisis, the countries bordering Mali – Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali itself – attempted to get together a regional coalition to tackle the growing threat of AQIM. But they knew to be successful they had to have Algerian cooperation. Algeria stalled the process.


AQIM are a creation of the Algerian state, created to give Algeria control of their own “islamist” problem, export it and use it to give Algeria an underhand control of security of the region around its borders and influence over this mineral/oil rich region.


Algeria are quite happy to have chaos in the north of Mali.  If they were really worried about growing islamism within Algeria why aren’t they jumping at the chance of US help to rid the region of the menace? 


The US know all about all this. They were involved with the Algerians when the GSPC, an Algerian salafist group, were transformed into Al Qaeda In The Islamic Magreb. They have been there in Mali on the ground with AFRICOM supposedly monitoring the AQIM situation and training the Malian military in “counterterrorism”. They were so successful at this that AQIM grew from a bunch of bandits smuggling drugs across the Sahara to a force that can now hold down an area the size of France, and the Malian military were so well trained, that in their garrisons closest to the AQIM camps such as Aguelhoc their military did not even have enough bullets.


The world now has a very difficult choice to make on Mali. Either we sort this out properly once and for all now or we push the problem under the table to reappear later as the specter that is held up for us of an “Afghanistan or Somalia”. The cleanest way of sorting this out may just be to put more weapons in on the ground.


The argument for keeping Mali as a unified country is strong and so is the argument against an independent Azawad. Many Tuareg would love independence but fear an independent Azawad would turn the highly stratified and factionalised Tuareg culture in on itself possibly leading to civil war. Mali as an entity may be imperfect but it has history now.If we can repair abit of the trust, northerners more resposnibility for governing themselves within a unified state structure that they can live with, they may after all this realise this is their best option.


With the coming wealth from their oil deposits, Mali could rebuild a fair and inclusive form of government, perhaps on federal grounds. But it has to be based on the country’s ethnic make up and give all regions a fair share of the wealth. The worst possible solution is a return to the status quo, the supposed “beacon of democracy in the region” or a similar international solution based on western models of democracy which caused the situation in the first place. 


For Mali to have a chance of achieving this best case domestic scenario they need the international world to engage with the situation, without self interest driving their engagement. 


The alternative is that we leave the powers in the region to sort this out themselves. This will probably mean that the “islamist” problem will just end up eventually retreating to its drugs smuggling position, leaving the continued threat of kidnapping of westerners. ECOWAS and  the Algerian and Malian governments have shown no signs of wanting to engage all parties in round table constitutional talks for Mali. Without such talks it is unlikely that the north/south divide in Mali will be resolved. In this scenario we may well be kicking the hitherto ridiculous idea of an “Afghanistan or Somalia” situation in Mali or elewhere in the region somewhere down the road.

I believe passionately that the only solutions for African problems have to come from Africa. But sadly the only way a Malian people’s solution to Mali’s problem can now come about is if the international world facilitate it.


To do it “properly” we will need to engage the MNLA. 


(This article was written before today’s events of MNLA and AQIM/MUJAO forces clashing in Ansanago and Fata: