Mali: The Americans And French Try To Work It Out

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April 15, 2013: The Tuaregs of northern Mali remain divided over their place in Mali. While most Tuaregs detest the corrupt black African politicians and officials from the south, they have no problem living next to black African Malians or doing business with them. Even before the French moved north in January, most of the Tuareg (who comprise most of the northern population) rebels (the MNLA) had turned against the Islamic terrorists who had taken control of the north by force. MNLA means (in French) “Liberation Army of Azawad,” and the Mali government is upset that some of the MNLA men controlling roads and cities are approving documents (like passes) with rubber stamps that say “State of Azawad”. That is the Tuareg term for their homeland in northern Mali. France tolerates the MNLA as long as the rebels work with France and do not fight the Mali army or government officials. Several hundred Tuareg Malian soldiers work directly for the French as scouts and translators. These men help the French determine which Tuareg rebels can be trusted and which are Islamic terrorists (usually members of MUJAO or Ansar Dine).

There are three different Islamic radical groups in the north. Ansar Dine (which controlled Timbuktu) is from Mali and led by Tuareg Islamic radicals. MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) controlled Gao and is from neighboring Mauritania. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has members from all over North Africa but mostly from Algeria. MUJAO is basically a Mauritanian faction of AQIM, and there is some tension between the two groups. AQIM has the most money and weapons and used this to exercise some control over the other two radical groups (who outnumbered AQIM in Mali). Both these groups are sometimes at odds with Ansar Dine, which felt it should be in charge because it is Malian. Until late 2012, all three groups cooperated in order to maintain their control of the north. Then Ansar Dine began negotiating with the Mali government for a separate peace and some kind of compromise over Tuareg autonomy in the north. In part this was because MUJAO and AQIM were bringing in reinforcements from Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, and Sudan and threatened to reduce the area Ansar Dine controlled. Ansar Dine saw itself as the only Malian group in the Islamic radical government up north and was determined to defend Tuareg interests against the many foreigners in MUJAO (which also has Malian members) and especially AQIM (which wanted to run everything). Ansar Dine saw AQIM as a bunch of gangsters, dependent on its relationship with drug gangs (al Qaeda moves the drugs north to the Mediterranean coast) and kidnappers (who hold Europeans for multi-million dollar ransoms). All this cash gave AQIM a lot of power, both to buy weapons and hire locals. With the high unemployment in the north and the image of Islamic warriors, working for AQIM was an attractive prospect for many young men. Most of those new recruits deserted as their employers fled the advancing French. The Tuareg members of MUJAO and Ansar Dine could find locals in the north to shelter them while the foreigners (mainly from AQIM) had to flee because they were too easily spotted by Mali civilians and pointed out to the French, Malian, and other African troops who now occupy the north.

Some Tuareg factions have made peace with the Mali government and are cooperating in the hunt for al Qaeda fighters. But other Tuareg factions have not decided yet, even as they are threatened with smart bomb attacks if they make a move against the pro-government forces that have taken back control of the north. If the government can be persuaded to negotiate an autonomy deal with the Tuaregs in the north, that will go a long way towards making the area more hostile for al Qaeda. But it’s not certain that such a deal will be made. The black African officers and officials from the south are still mad about how the Tuareg rebels drove them out of the north last year. Revenge is still being sought for that humiliation but it must be tempered with the fact that MNLA is still organized, armed, and numerous enough to defeat the Mali troops up north.

As the French moved north they used the many followers (armed and unarmed) as the MNLA to help maintain order. There simply were not enough soldiers available and the MNLA men were there and had already been negotiating with the Mali government to make peace once the Islamic terrorists were gone. The Mali Army is still not strong enough to drive the MNLA out of the north. This is despite the fact that the north contains only about 12 percent of Mali's 15 million people and is largely barren desert. The MNLA is popular because they are locals, relatively honest, and sufficiently well-armed to keep the thieving southern politicians and soldiers away. The Islamic terror groups made themselves unpopular (and made the MNLA look much better by comparison) in the north by forcing everyone to obey strict (no tobacco, alcohol, music, video, shaved men, and unveiled women) Islamic lifestyle rules. This ran into a lot of resistance, especially once the Islamic terrorists made it clear that their ultimate goal was turning all of Mali into an Islamic religious dictatorship.

Security up north is complicated by the movement of refugees. Many of them are now returning home and troops have to be alert to Islamic terrorists hiding in plain sight pretending to be returning refugees.

France and the United States are at odds over the value of African peacekeepers in Mali. The U.S. believes that the African troops headed for peacekeeping duty in Mali are too poorly trained, equipped, and led to be of much use. France believes that you can work around the deficiencies and make the African troops useful (for local security, like manning roadblocks and guard duty). The U.S. believes that you have to be careful with that approach as the African troops are often led by corrupt officers who will demand bribes from the locals. This causes popular resentment of the peacekeepers and helps the Islamic terrorists to remain hidden. French and American officers are seeking to work out these differences of opinion. While the Americans have been training a growing number of African troops in the last decade, the French have been in Africa for over a century and have a long track record of getting things done despite all the problems the Americans fret about.

April 14, 2013: Chad will withdraw its 2,000 troops as the Chad government considers their soldiers unsuited to fighting terrorists. The Chad Army has a lot of experience operating in the desert but has not had to deal with Islamic terrorists. The Chad troops have been operating with French soldiers in chasing down organized groups of Islamic terrorist gunmen. But as these groups are destroyed, some of the survivors slip away and organize terrorist operations.

April 13, 2013: In Kidal two suicide bomber killed three Chadian troops. This increases Chadian losses in Mali to 33.

April 11, 2013: The government announced national elections for July. This is supposed to replace the current government, which was forcibly imposed on the country by the military with an elected one. While the army allowed a civilian government to replace a short period of military rule a year ago, the generals have retained a veto power over government decisions and are answerable to no one but themselves. Foreign donor nations have made it clear that foreign aid will be limited as long as the army is still the de facto government. Meanwhile the army is trying to develop some popularity with the foreigners by going after northerners involved in smuggling drugs. Normally the troops would demand a bribe and let the smuggling go on. The army also has a lot of problems in the south, where most Malians are unhappy with the military trying to take control of the government. Corruption remains the big problem down south and the aggressive officers who rebelled last year are not seen as saviors but another bunch of crooks seeking to plunder the country.

April 9, 2013: France withdrew the first hundred (of 3,000 eventually) troops from Mali. The plan is to keep a thousand there indefinitely to work with up to 10,000 African peacekeepers. France believes that, so far, their efforts in northern Mali have killed 600 of some 2,000 Islamic terrorists who were up there at the start of the year. Up to a thousand Islamic terrorists have fled the country or been captured. French troops are now seeking the remaining terrorists and their hidden supplies of weapons, ammo, and other equipment. These caches were hidden all over the north, especially in an area near the Algerian border that had been an AQIM base area for a decade. But in the eight months they controlled most of the north the Islamic terrorists hid stuff in dozens of locations, just in case. These weapons and explosives enable the remaining Islamic terrorists up there to continue doing damage, so the French are eager to find and destroy this stuff before it gets used.

April 7, 2013: About a thousand French troops began a search north of Gao, seeking to find terrorists cashes (of weapons and bomb making materials) that intelligence indicated were there. The locals have generally been helpful in reporting where the terrorists have hidden weapons and such, even if they do not know the exact location. When that is known, the stuff is often looted by locals as there is always an active market for weapons and explosives in the north.

April 6, 2013: Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri released a 103 minute message on the Internet calling on young Moslems in North Africa to go to Mali to help the defeated Islamic terrorists there or to join local terrorists and fight for Islam. Zawahiri admitted that al Qaeda had suffered heavy losses in Mali but insisted the situation was not hopeless. There are believed to be several hundred Islamic terrorists trying to operate in northern Mali.

In northern Mali some members of MNLA openly celebrated the first anniversary of their taking control of the north. Any nearby Malians from the south stayed out of the way.

 

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